By Crystal Simmons
There’s a famous stretch of Highway 290 so spectacularly beautiful that even harried motorists eager to reach their destinations sometimes pause for a photo or two, helpless against the allure of bluebonnets on a sunny day.
Less than 100 miles to the east in Harris County, motorists discard fast food bags and dirty diapers at stoplights. Couches sit at dead ends, tires and buckets of paint stack up among scraps of old food containers, and cigarette butts peek out between blades of grass.
With years of waste piling up and new litter accumulating daily, addressing litter may seem overwhelming for those unfamiliar with local and state government. The good news is that residents have the tools to fight back against blight. According to Elizabeth Stinsman, the director of Precinct 4’s Community Assistance Department, the first step is knowing who to call for service.
“The easiest way to tackle litter is to find out who is responsible for maintaining your area,” Stinsman says. “We invite residents concerned with litter to reach out to the Community Assistance Department. If we don’t maintain the area, we’ll help them find the appropriate contact.”
Responsible parties in Harris County may include commissioners in precincts 1, 2, 3, or 4, the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT), the Harris County Toll Road Authority, or a private entity.
Even when the proper agency is on the job, keeping streets clean still requires massive amounts of time and money, especially in the sprawling Greater Houston area.
Across the state, TxDOT maintains more than 79,000 miles of highways and farm-to-market and ranch-to-market roads, including the heavily trafficked and much-maligned FM 1960. With such a large area to cover, litter cleanup on state roads isn’t cheap, costing more than $47 million in 2019.
Highways in the Greater Houston area are also among the most polluted in the state.
“In 2020, Interstate 610, Interstate 10, and Interstate 45 have required the most money spent for cleanup,” says Becky Ozuna, the campaign coordinator with the Don’t Mess with Texas program. “This is directly linked to the high volume of traffic that traverses these roadways.”
At the county level, Precinct 4’s Road & Bridge Department maintains more than 2,628 miles of roadways. The toll road authority maintains another 128 miles. Both agencies are out removing litter every day.
“We always remove trash before mowing, so roads are serviced about every four to six weeks,” says Freddie Jebousek, the general superintendent for Precinct 4’s Road & Bridge Department. “But also, if a constituent reports an abundance of trash in a particular location, we send a crew to pick it up.”
Despite regular cleanup, some areas remain litter hotspots.
“We’ll go through and mow Spears Road and have it all nice and pretty. And the next day – there’s trash again,” says Jebousek. “It’s the same situation with Veterans Memorial and Antoine.”
Jebousek explains that crews see the most litter in densely populated areas near busy thoroughfares and intersections. He says fast-food containers, drinks, and cigarette butts are some of the most common items that people throw.
Some residents have taken a grassroots approach to litter control, starting with extra maintenance and beautification.
According to a 2009 Keep America Beautiful study, communities with low rates of visible litter, well-maintained streets and sidewalks, attractive plants, flowers, trees, and attractive infrastructure saw less garbage than other neighborhoods.
Barbara Schlattman, a Champions resident, noticed a change in her community when she helped establish the Green Medians Joint Powers Board along FM 1960 eight years ago.
Schlattman brought together 14 water district boards who agreed to beautify 9 miles of medians along FM 1960, from Mills Road to I-45. Members paid for landscaping, water, and weekly maintenance, including trash cleanup.
Despite being one of the area’s most heavily trafficked roadways, the area today remains nearly free of visible litter, she says.
“Just seeing that the area is well cared for may be enough to deter some litterers,” says Schlattman.
Road adoption programs are also popular across the state. Groups commit to keeping a roadway clean for at least one year and conduct quarterly cleanups through programs like Precinct 4’s Adopt-A-County Mile program or TxDOT’s Adopt-A-Highway program.
Keep Texas Beautiful gives residents the tools to clean up their communities. It offers free cleaning supplies and resources for organizing cleanups. Interested individuals or groups can download resources or browse upcoming cleanup events at www.ktb.org.
Motorists and concerned residents can also report litter to each agency directly.
For other concerns, contact Precinct 4’s Community Assistance Department at 832-927-4444 or email@example.com.
With some effort, residents can clean up their communities and help make Precinct 4 a beautiful place to live. Though the road may be difficult, Schlattman believes the result is worth the effort.
“I feel like everyone deserves to be surrounded by beauty,” she says. “After we finished the green medians project, I encouraged people to go back to their subdivisions and try to beautify their neighborhoods. Many of them really are beautifully maintained.”