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Why stopping I-985 litter — and cleaning it up — is a difficult task
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Traffic slows for construction on I-985 southbound. - photo by Erin O. Smith

The 25 miles of I-985 are heavily traveled. But sometimes they’re also heavily littered.

Who is responsible for enforcement of litter laws depends on which stretch of the road you’re on. And who is allowed to clean up trash is an even more complicated question.

When it comes to local jurisdiction of I-985, the police departments of Gainesville, Flowery Branch and Oakwood and the Hall County Sheriff’s Office split sections of the road to patrol.

While the Hall County Sheriff's Office has jurisdiction over the entirety of I-985, Gainesville PD handles it from Howard Road to Oakwood. The Oakwood Police Department picks up from Oakwood to north of Spout Springs Road. Flowery Branch police patrol the Spout Springs Road area, while the Sheriff's Office reclaims jurisdiction down to the Gwinnett County line.

Georgia State Patrol is also involved in patrolling I-985.

But even with that much law enforcement presence, catching litterers is difficult.

“As far as litter enforcement goes along a bustling stretch of highway, it’s uncommon for deputies to catch someone in the act of littering or (seeing) trash coming from a vehicle,” said Derreck Booth, spokesperson for the Hall County Sheriff's Office. “You’re talking about speeds of 70 mph on the interstate when motorists are obeying the speed limit.”

Patrolling can serve as a deterrent though.

“You also have to factor in that patrol vehicles are essentially motorized billboards announcing law enforcement presence, putting would-be litterbugs on their best behavior,” Booth said.

Georgia law defines littering as any discarded or abandoned refuse, rubbish, junk or other waste material and establishes two classes of litter: litter and egregious litter.
State law holds the driver culpable for any litter leaving a vehicle, and littering is a misdemeanor on the first offense as long as it’s not hazardous, biomedical or commercially dumped waste. Even illegally dumping more than 500 pounds is considered a misdemeanor on the first offense.

A second littering conviction is a felony, with fines up to $25,000 or a prison sentence of up to two years. Sometimes, both penalties apply.

Convicted litterers can also be ordered to clean up a particular littered area in a community. 

While the act of littering can go unnoticed, the resulting debris doesn’t.

But cleanup of litter alongside state roadways is solely in the hands of the Georgia Department of Transportation. 

“If an officer with the Gainesville Police Department observed someone actively littering while traveling I-985, they could issue the violator a citation,” said Christina Santee, spokesperson for the city of Gainesville. “That being said, I-985 is overseen by the Georgia Department of Transportation and they would be responsible for any clean-up efforts.”

Hall County spokesperson Katie Crumley said Hall County Jail inmates will be contracted to do cleanups on I-985 occasionally.

But GDOT’s exclusivity limits outside efforts to clean up state roads. Officials warned Shanda Sexton, the executive director of Keep Hall Beautiful, that any attempt by the organization to clean up litter alongside I-985 would be a fineable offense of up to $1,000.

“Unfortunately we are limited in our scope of litter cleanup,” said Sexton. “Keep Hall Beautiful is unable to do trash removal or cleanups on DOT state roads, and there are penalties of even attempting to clean up one or two pieces of litter.”

Numerous attempts to reach Georgia DOT officials for comment were unsuccessful.

Sexton, a frequent motorist on I-985, urged residents to use the organization’s litter reporting tool

“It’s frustrating to drive along I-985 and see piles of trash on the roadways and you feel this raw urge to want to clean up as much as you can,” she said. “But I think the reporting tool is a useful avenue for people to take, given how limited our cleanup efforts are on state roads.”

In October, the Georgia DOT rolled out a new anti-littering campaign. Promoted as “Keep It Clean Georgia,” the effort is focused on preventing and eliminating litter along 50,000 miles of Georgia’s interstates and state routes.

The effort is also a money-saving vehicle. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, the average American produces about five pounds of trash each day, which plays a part in the nearly $11.5 billion spent on litter clean-up in the United States each year.

But litter isn’t just aesthetically displeasing. It also has a negative effect on the environment and public health.

From cigarette butts to snack wrappers to debris from vehicles, litter on high-traffic roadways will find its way into waterways through storm runoff or high wind gusts.

The activist group Ocean Conservancy reports that each year, an estimated 17 billion pounds of plastic flows into the ocean. The vast majority is from land-based sources, including plastic bottles, bags and straws.

Additionally, research findings from the Environmental Protection Agency indicate that air quality is affected within a few hundred meters — about 500-600 feet — downwind from the vicinity of heavily traveled roadways.

Sexton said that one of the struggles in a pandemic-riddled year for Keep Hall Beautiful has been a lack of large-scale education anti-litter events. But Sexton hopes that motorists are thinking twice before disposing of that candy wrapper on the highway.

“One piece of garbage isn’t just one piece of garbage,” said Sexton. “It is actually a thousand pieces of Hall County residents’ garbage that can, unfortunately, make its way into our drinking water and impact our wildlife.”

Keep Hall Beautiful has looked toward social media such as Tik Tok and Instagram to spread its anti-litter message. 

Sexton said the more people have fun while cleaning up, the more bad littering habits could start to go away.

“It’s important to interject creative ways to do a wonderful thing such as cleaning up litter in our beautiful county,” she said. “It’s more than just correcting bad habits or spreading a message, it’s reinforcing the message of don’t pollute.”