NEW BERN — North Carolina’s highways are facing a growing problem of litter-overload with papers and packaging piling up everywhere you go.
It has seemingly reached a saturation point as county and state leaders are admitting embarrassment at how visitors to the state must see us, and action is beginning to happen to fight the problem.
The littering comes from numerous sources. People simply throwing their trash out the window as they drive along is the best known — and probably the hardest to catch. You see their signature everywhere — cigarette butts strewn across intersections where they just finished off that last cigarette; at exit ramps and the last dozen yards before bridges where passengers and drivers seem to get a sudden urge to lose that trash before going on.
But bigger culprits, according to some, are the professional contractors and amateur haulers who drive loads of trash to the Tuscarora landfill without properly covering their load.
The evidence is clear: U.S. 70 between Glenburnie Road and the Dover exit — where drivers from the east exit to go to the landfill on Old U.S. 70 — is heavily strewn with trash. While litter continues beyond that exit, it is significantly lighter.
But who is spilling it?
The Tuscarora Landfill services all the garbage in three counties — Craven, Pamlico and Carteret, through the tri-county Coastal Environmental Partnership. It is governed by a seven-member board appointed by the member county commissioners.
The landfill ultimately receives all the trash in the three counties. How much? 140,000 tons annually and 650 tons per day, though Executive Director Bobby Darden said that, probably due to COVID-19, “we have seen historic levels of household garbage over the past 12 months” — 170,000 tons of it. Lined cells are built from the ground up to receive the trash, rising 125 feet (making Tuscarora Landfill the highest point in Craven County) and covering roughly 20 acres of land. The cells take an average of seven to eight years to fill, and Tuscarora is on its fifth cell since CEP formed in 1993.
To save on distance, CEP owns transfer stations at the former landfills in Pamlico (at 2391 N.C. 306, 3 miles north of Grantsboro) and Carteret (800 Hibbs Road, Newport). Garbage is transported from these to Tuscarora via a fleet of eight semi-trucks.
Recycling is transported to Sonoco Recycling in Jacksonville.
Craven County contracts all its garbage and recycling collection Green For Life’s Waste Industries. GFL collects residential trash and recycling as well as handling the trash and recycling that is taken to recycling centers. According to Steven Aster, director of the County Solid Waste and Recycling Department, local trash and recycling is required to be picked up in closed container trucks — “just for that reason,” he said, “we don’t want it blowing down the road.” The county requires the open containers that are hauled from recycling centers to be covered with automatic tarps to hold the trash in.
The semis that haul garbage from the transport stations are also covered with heavy tarps.
That doesn’t mean no trash falls out.
Bobbi Waters, outreach coordinator with CEP, admitted that the efficiency of the tarps “depends — they’re made out of a plastic material, so it can rip or get a gap in it,” she said. She added that CEP trucks are occasionally ticketed for losing trash along the road — “We get calls and tickets,” she said. But “If we know it’s come out of one of our trucks, the driver will pull over and retrieve it.”
But she doesn’t believe that most the litter is from CEP vehicles.
While by tonnage, most business at the landfill is from its own transfer stations and from commercial collectors, the lion’s share of individual customers are from smaller contractors and residents who bring in pickups and trailers full of garbage from cleanup or projects. When not covered properly, they can lose significant amounts of trash, especially when they hit open highways where they can drive faster.
She said there have been times she’s arrived at Tuscarora and found dumped trash from smaller haulers left at the gate. She showed a photo of an abandoned toilet as an example.
State Rep. Steve Tyson, who has joined a legislative campaign to rewrite littering laws, said that it is easy for drivers to lose their trash. “It’s happened to me,” he said. ‘You inadvertently put something in the back of your truck and go down the road at 50 miles per hour. It’s going to blow out.”
But he doesn’t agree with Waters as to small haulers being the primary problem. “Once I get past Tuscarora a little bit, the trash decreases immensely,” he said. “That’s why I believe, along the highway, that trash is coming off those containers as they travel.”
The Sun Journal checked the roads going to both Tuscarora Landfill and the Grantsboro Transfer Station and verified Tyson’s observations. As you get closer to each point — on U.S. 70 to the Dover Exit, Old U.S. 70, and N.C. 306 in Pamlico — the trash by the road increases significantly, then thins out quickly once you’ve passed.
He added that the problem is even more prevalent in Carteret County, which leads to an observation from Craven County Sheriff Chip Hughes: The bulk is from large trucks coming in from Carteret on Hibbs Road, he said. “Everywhere between Hibbs road and Carteret to here is coming here and throwing trash.”
Tyson, who is also a real estate agent, is disgusted with the litter problem: “It reflects poorly on the county,” he said. “I can tell you, people that are down here looking to potentially move into the area notice things like that.”
“You look at our highways around here and they’re just a cluttered mess,” Hughes added, while Aster also chimed in, “It’s frustrating to see so much litter along the roads.” U.S. Rep. Greg Murphy, whose 3rd District covers the area, has also noted the growing litter problem, noting, “While driving through the district my wife, Wendy and I noted how our beautiful eastern North Carolina has a significant roadside trash problem.”