Inside Seven
Current Issue: September 2014
District 7 Maintenance picks up 50,000 cubic yards of trash each year.

Trash Talk: Maintenance’s Never-Ending Battle Against Litter and Lost Loads
by  Kelly Markham
Issue Date: 02/2010

From cans to couches, Maintenance crews work tirelessly to keep trash off District 7 freeways. Not only do clean freeways look better, they’re also safer.

The California Highway Patrol’s (CHP) online Traffic Incident Page lists all manner of freeway events as they occur – everything from collisions to dogs in the median. One of the most frequently occurring incidents is “traffic hazard – debris/object.” Sometimes, the entry provides a description of the object, such as “box of metal parts” or “blue camper shell” or “bathroom sink.”

When sinks, camper shells and boxes of metal parts find their way onto the freeway, they may provoke weaving, abrupt lane changes, and colorful cursing, all of which can jeopardize safety. Even a plastic bag fluttering across the mainline can prompt erratic maneuvers. The people charged with taming the trash – among many other responsibilities – is District 7 Maintenance.

Each year, crews pick up about 50,000 cubic yards of trash – that’s the equivalent of about 1.6 million average kitchen trash cans – at a cost of about $12 million. “We’re out there collecting trash all the time, every day,” said Maintenance Manager II Richard Gordon. “It’s never-ending.”

Taking a Load off

Much of the trash collected is small – soda bottles, fast-food wrappers, plastic bags, and the occasional firearm. But there’s also the swerve-worthy big stuff – sofas, sheets of drywall, and washing machines. Mattresses, ladders, plastic wading pools and other objects often precariously secured to the tops of cars are disproportionately likely to become freeway flotsam.

(Note to do-it-yourself haulers: Objects that appear to be secured while parked may not remain secured at 60 miles per hour. Note to do-it-yourself haulers, the corollary: CHP officers can ticket you for having a poorly secured load. If your poorly secured load becomes what CHP refers to as a “lost load,” you could be facing more serious charges, not to mention a $1,000 fine.)

Items that land in lanes are usually hit multiple times, eventually coming to rest on the shoulder, where they await the arrival of a Maintenance crew. Crews have picked up new plasma televisions, refrigerators and furniture all smashed to smithereens, the charge still fresh on the buyer’s credit card.

Collecting big items, like a sink or dinette set, sometimes requires the assistance of CHP – particularly if the item is still in lanes. Officers will run a traffic break to temporarily close lanes so that a crew with a debris truck can pick up the item safely.

“Once we get to something that’s fallen onto the freeway, it’s usually pretty banged up,” said Gordon. “But if it’s still in decent shape and worth saving, we’ll hang onto it for 30 days to see if someone claims it. On rare occasions, that happens, but not very often.” Worthless trash gets hauled away by contractors. Metal items are recycled.

Trash Season

In mid-November through December, freeway shoulders play host to a predictable category of debris: Christmas trees. But despite this uptick in doomed holiday pines, winter is not the most debris-intensive time of year. Turns out, summer is the trashiest season of all.

“People are driving with their windows down. They’re on vacation. They’re taking more stuff with them,” said Gordon. Plus, summertime is road-trip time, moving time, and let's-build-a-deck time – all of which translates into more freeway debris.

So what are the most debris-prone freeways – the stretches of pavement most likely to attract mattresses and grocery bags and poorly secured construction materials? “That would be any freeway that gets a lot of truck traffic or is near a landfill,” said Gordon. “Some of those freeways get hundreds of trash trucks every day, and they lose stuff. There’s no getting around it. We clean them up, and they immediately begin gathering trash again.”

Safe Trumps Spotless

In a perfect world, Maintenance could keep District 7 freeways white-glove spotless all the time, nary a bottle, bag nor banged-up bumper to be seen. But in a perfect world, District 7 would also have unlimited funding and an army of picker-brandishing maintenance crews scouring all 1,188 miles of District 7 freeways 24/7. In the real world, Maintenance has limited funds and limited staff who can cover only so much territory. Losing three days every month to furloughs doesn’t help.

“Our priorities are safety, preservation, and aesthetics, in that order. If we have to choose between fixing a pothole and picking up trash, we’ll fix the pothole,” said Gordon. “We do the best we can with what we have to keep the freeways as clean as possible.

Workers collect litter near Downtown Los Angeles. A Maintenance crew uses a debris truck to collect big items on the shoulder. This picture depicts items District 7 Maintenance crews have found on the freeway. Motorists can be fined $1,000 for these lost loads. A worker collects trash near a changeable message sign.