David Cook: Road more traveled and less trashed

David Cook: Road more traveled and less trashed

January 23rd, 2013 by David Cook in Opinion Columns

David Cook

Photo by Ashlee Culverhouse/Times Free Press.

Dropped the car off at the downtown mechanic Tuesday morning. Took Market Street and some side alleys on my walk back to the newspaper.

Along the way, I picked up trash. In about 10 minutes, I scrounged together a cornucopia of ...

One roofing shingle, a hot sauce packet, a scratch-off lottery ticket, some plastic utensils, an empty packet for peanut M&Ms.

Thirteen plastic bottles. Many gum wrappers. A yogurt-to-go container. A wrinkled copy of the Times Free Press classifieds from New Year's Eve. An empty box of gas station fried food that cost $1.39. (A greasy cellophane wrap lay in the grass nearby. Didn't pick it up).

An airplane bottle of whiskey. A pint gin bottle. A pint vodka bottle. A big brown bottle for Hurricane malt liquor. Lite beer bottles. Four brown bags, one with the beer can still in it.

And, if I had room in my garbage bag, about a dozen tires.

"We have such a problem with litter,'' said Marge Davis. "The state of Tennessee spends about $10 million a year in litter control.''

Davis is president of Scenic Tennessee, our state's chapter of a national group dedicated to the beautification of our roads, Main Street culture, preservation of our aesthetic heritage. Sort of like Norman Rockwell politics.

"Maintaining the natural character and scenic character of our state,'' she said.

How absolutely perfect, wonderful and important. When God was done rough-draft fooling around with places like Mississippi and New Jersey, he decided to get serious and create one of the most beautiful places ever.

Tennessee.

And for Davis, a cleaner Tennessee is a better Tennessee.

"Higher home prices. More business investment,'' she said. "There is a correlation between litter on roadsides and people's respect for property values.''

Litter is more than just an empty Cup-o-Noodles or pork rinds bag (both found on my garbage odyssey). The psychology of litter sends a message to residents and passers-by that this area is dirty, dumpy and reckless.

Trash begets trash.

"If there is a lot of litter, there is more littering behavior than if a place has no litter or just one piece,'' she said.

Litter isn't the only form of pollution.

"Signage,'' she said.

No city elder would ever encourage littering as a way to attract business, residents and attention. Why, then, do we allow billboards to bombard our eyes along certain roads?

"Amber waves of grain? It is more like a ride through the Yellow Pages,'' wrote Edward McMahon, former president of Scenic America, in a 1998 issue of the Planning Commissioners Journal.

"Billboards are a form of pollution -- visual pollution,'' he wrote. "Regulating billboards is no different than regulating noxious fumes or sewage discharges.''

Maine, Vermont, Hawaii, Alaska and 700 other communities (including Knoxville) have outlawed billboards or prohibited new billboard construction.

Picture one of the prettiest roads you've ever traveled. Now picture the crum-dumpiest. Bet you a used AT&T calling card (also found in my morning garbage) there's one big difference between your dream and nightmare roads: the overpresence of billboards, or what McMahon called "litter on a stick.''

"When you have too many signs, people see none of them,'' Davis said.

Thankfully, there are solutions.

First: Encourage towns to pass ordinances that limit or outlaw billboards and signage.

Second: Pass the Tennessee bottle bill.

The bottle bill, as it's nicknamed, would put a 5 cent deposit on certain beverage containers (beer bottles, plastic bottles) sold in the state. (A six-pack would suddenly cost 30 cents more).

Redemption, or collection, centers are built. Citizens, when they bring in bottles and cans for redemption, receive their deposit. Or donate it to charities.

Yet Davis says not every bottle or can will be returned, leaving what she predicts is a $12 million annual source of revenue for the state.

"Growth is inevitable,'' Davis said. "Ugliness is not.''