12 million pounds

bags of litter on grass in foreground with teens in the background
Picture a line of garbage trucks starting at Safeco Field in Seattle and extending all the way to the Space Needle — and then imagine that line wrapping around and coming right back.

That's how much litter is dropped on Washington's roads and highways each year: more than 12 million pounds — enough to fill 800 garbage trucks.

It's cigarette butts and fast food wrappers, furniture and mattresses that fell off of trucks, bags of household garbage and jugs of human urine tossed by drivers who just couldn't take the time to pull over and use the facilities.

It is gross.

It is dangerous. Debris from items falling out of trucks and cars leads to 400 accidents a year in Washington.

Various litter and trash sit in grass.
It is a threat to human health and the environment. Burning cigarette butts frequently lead to roadside fires with noxious smoke.

It is completely unnecessary.

This summer, Ecology, the Washington State Department of Transportation and the Washington State Patrol are working together to get the word out about litter prevention. We'll be sharing photos and videos of litter hot spots and the issues litter causes, and holding events beginning with "Secure Your Load Day" on June 6.

Why do we talk about litter prevention? It's because we just can't pick up our way out of the problem. The Ecology Youth Corps employs more than 300 teenagers through the summer on roadside litter crews, and sends out adult median crews during the spring and fall. Ecology also provides grants from the state's litter control account to other agencies and local governments for litter pickup. The Department of Transportation has the Adopt-A-Highway program that picks up still more litter, and spends $4 million a year from its maintenance budget on litter pickup.

It's not enough. Combined, all of those programs pick up about 5.3 million pounds of litter a year. More than 12 million pounds of litter a year goes on the roads. The math isn't difficult, and it isn't pretty.

filled Ecology bags of litter, and a toilet and seat.
Litter is not just an urban problem, or something that comes from homeless camps. Surveys show that 50 percent of us in Washington litter at least occasionally.

That's why prevention is the key. Litter "happens" because we are too often careless about securing loads or taking an extra bag for trash on our road trip. Litter "happens" because we don't think about where things go after we toss them out a window.

This summer, help us put that 12 million pounds on a diet. Here's how to start: