Litterbug! : Answers to Some Trashy Questions About Freeway Littering


North County is a leader in the roadside rubble that is mounting in San Diego. Following are some questions put to the California Department of Transportation about the trash problem and how it’s being tackled.

Which freeway is the trashiest?

“Interstate 5 is far and away our leader in litter, and we’re not entirely sure why,” said Tom Nipper, a spokesman for Caltrans in San Diego. “Most of it is because of the population density in North County, but Interstate 8 has the most volume as far as traffic is concerned, and it is fourth on our list in the amount of litter we collect there. It’s a quarter of what we find on I-5.”

What is the fine for littering? Are litterbugs ever caught?

The fine for littering can be as high as $1,000. In recent years, however, courts have been lax with litterers and usually let them go with a warning.


“It’s very discouraging to us (at Caltrans) considering the amount of money we spend each year to pick up the litter,” Nipper said. “There have been fines levied, but the last I heard from the California Highway Patrol, the trend has been toward being very lenient.”

One recourse motorists have is to call a litter hot line operated by I Love a Clean San Diego. If a motorist sees somebody tossing trash from their car, they can call a toll-free number and report the make and license plate number of the car.

I Love a Clean San Diego will use the information to obtain the name of the car’s owner through the state Department of Motor Vehicles. The DMV will then send a trash bag and a letter to the person, basically stating, “We know who you are, we saw what you did and please control yourself.” The toll-free number to report litterers is 1-800-237-2583.

Who are the freeway litterbugs?

Litterers are not confined to any particular sex, race or social stature. No matter where they are coming from or where they are going, people from all walks of life are leaving a liberal trail of trash, Nipper said.

How much trash was collected last year from North County freeways?

Thumbing through his “Year in Litter Review,” a recently released report with all kinds of trashy statistics, Nipper found that 12,630 cubic yards of litter were removed from North County freeways in 1990. That translates into 88,410 of those orange plastic bags you see piled along the freeway shoulders.

To form a clearer picture, envision the 50 miles these bags can cover if they are lined up side by side, said Nipper. Starting at the Clairemont Drive off-ramp on I-5, the bags would reach the Orange County border.


Who picks up North County’s freeway litter and how much does it cost each year?

About 13,000 people supplied by the San Diego County Probation Department collected trash along North County freeways last year. This work force, made up of people performing community service to fulfill the terms of their probation. Caltrans supplies 15 paid crew supervisors.

Despite the mostly unpaid work force, the cost of collecting, hauling and dumping last year’s trash was $670,000. This covered I-15, I-5 and California 163 (all north of downtown San Diego) and I-805 and California 52, 76 and 78.

What are some of the most bizarre things found on North County freeways?

In the bizarre category, it would be hard to top the pinball machine that was found in the middle of traffic on California 78 in Vista. Of course, if you go back a few years, the memory of the life-size papier-mache rhinoceros propped along a North County roadside also lingers.

Caltrans workers pick up about 50 mattresses a month, countless shovels, ladders, pieces of wood, tree limbs and an occasional disconcerting spill of nails.

Last year, as part of a public awareness campaign, Caltrans furnished a house and garage solely with items they collected.

“We decorated an entire house with things taken simply off the freeway,” Nipper said. “We put posters on the walls, clothes in the closets; we had skateboards, TVs, beds in all the bedrooms, couches in the living room, and in the kitchen a stove, a refrigerator and a hot water heater.”


The garage was outfitted with a washer and dryer, an array of bicycles, lawn mowers and a motorcycle. Parked in the driveway were the remains of an abandoned, burned car found near Bonsall.

“People think it’s funny when they see all these things, and it is funny until you are doing 55 m.p.h. on the freeway and you see a pinball machine in front of you,” Nipper said. “It’s not funny then.”

How do you prevent accidental littering?

One way to avoid accidental littering is to secure what you’re hauling with recycled fishnet. These sturdy nylon nets, thrown over a large load, provide better security than plain rope and eliminate the possibility of your trash or valuables becoming airborne.

Home Depot sells the nets at cost, and a portion of the income is given to I Love a Clean San Diego.

Besides not littering, what can the average person do?

In October, 1989, Caltrans started a program called Adopt-a-Highway. Since then, about 100 groups in the county have signed up and are shouldering the responsibility of keeping different stretches of highway clean.

Any group without political affiliation can adopt a two-mile section of highway. They are responsible for picking up litter as often as necessary to keep their sectors trash-free--usually about four times a year, Nipper said.


Caltrans gives the volunteer groups a safety talk and outfits them with goggles, gloves, hard hats, trash bags, neon vests and long-pole trash pickers. Volunteers are allowed to work only on the right-hand shoulder of the freeway.

Anyone interested in the Adopt-a-Highway program can call Jim Noel at CalTrans, 688-3367.