Clean Up Of Metro Phoenix Highway Litter Costs Taxpayers

In 2017, it cost taxpayers more than $4 million to clean up roughly 400 miles of highway in the metro Phoenix area. According to the Maricopa Association of Governments and the Arizona Department of Transportation, that’s a $300,000 increase from 2016.

“Most of us treat our individual homes with respect. We should treat our collective home – the state of Arizona – with the same respect,” said Kelly Taft, communications manager for MAG.

MAG is the regional planning and policy agency for the area and sets policy on transportation, air and water quality, and human services.

“Arizona’s not your ashtray. Arizona’s not your junkyard. Arizona’s not your trashcan. Arizona is our home. Love it, don’t trash it,” Taft said.

A new campaign from MAG sends that message with the goal to be a decrease in freeway litter.

Over 80,000 large bags of trash were collected in 2017, according to ADOT. Since 2006, more than 1.1 million trash bags in the Phoenix area have been filled with food and organic material, scraps of paper and food wrappers. Contracted crews work five days a week to keep state and federal highways in the Valley clear of garbage and debris.

Large debris, such as mattresses, furniture, ladders and scrap metal, are taken to one of three Arizona Department of Transportation maintenance yards in the Valley.

“Don’t secure your mattress with your arm,” ADOT spokesman Doug Pacey said. “You’re going to lose it. So you’re going to have to pay for a new mattress and you’re also going to make it dangerous for other people.”

Cigarette butts are the source of multiple problems as well, by containing numerous poisonous chemicals that can contaminate the water supply to influence the environment and human health.

“It’s very difficult for road crews to pick them up off the freeways, so they also tend to stay around for a very long time,” Taft said. 

A 2017 survey by MAG looked specifically at men age 18 to 34, of which 88 percent more acknowledged throwing out cigarette butts compared to the previous year. More than 400 people responded to the survey.

Forty-six percent of the participants also acknowledged having tossed food or organic waste out the window.

“People think it’s OK to throw out (organic waste) because they’re biodegradable and they will break down,” Taft said, “but it can take a couple of years for that to happen. Litter attracts more litter.”