Cooper: The return of 'Tennessee Trash': Tell us where the trashiest roads are in Chattanooga

Staff File Photo / Trash, despite cleanup efforts over the years by volunteers, floats in Chattanooga Creek in this 2019 photograph.
Staff File Photo / Trash, despite cleanup efforts over the years by volunteers, floats in Chattanooga Creek in this 2019 photograph.

"Tennessee trash, messin' up the highway;

Tennessee trash, junkin' up the biway;

Lord, there ain't no lower class than Tennessee trash.

Lord, there ain't no lower class than Tennessee trash."

Volunteer State residents of a certain age may remember the 1976 public service announcement by the state Department of Transportation that popped up on television from time to time during the next decade. It depicted a man in a ratty, sleeveless T-shirt driving an old Chevrolet Corvair down a highway and throwing out trash left and right.

At the end of the one-minute "Tennessee Trash" ditty sung by country artist Ed Bruce, a voice-over intoned, "We have met the enemy, and he is us."

It may be time to drag out that old PSA.

Complaints have grown over the past year about how trash-ridden Chattanooga has become, but it's not the only place where litter is proliferating.

Experts say the pandemic has contributed to the growth of trash across the state and country from the purchase of single-use containers for meals, many of which previously might have been enjoyed at restaurants.

Tell us where the trashiest roads are

Do you drive on a Chattanooga street trashed by litter? Let us know which one for a potential follow-up. Email

A 2020 survey of diners by Open Table found the use of take-out food service one or more times a week had increased 72% since pre-COVID-19 times. Meanwhile, the Solid Waste Association of North America reported a 20% increase in municipal solid waste and recycling from March to April 2020.

But you know all of it's not going to a landfill.

Too much of it, for instance, ends up in our waterways. We're sure nobody knows anyone who does that, but someone's doing it. A lot of someones, in fact.

In October 2020, a month Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee declared "Keep the Tennessee River Watershed Beautiful Month," nearly 18 tons of trash were removed from the Tennessee and Clinch rivers in Tennessee, Kentucky, Alabama and Mississippi. Along with them came 136 tires and some even larger items like outdoors playsets.

But much of it was plastic - fish-choking, turtle-strangling plastic.

And now Hamilton Countians who live in unincorporated areas are going to be able to recycle less of their plastic. Starting May 1, Hamilton County recycling centers will take only #1 and #2 in plastics.

Mark Adams, recycling supervisor for Hamilton County, told this page Tuesday the market for recyclables is "so bad" that West Rock, the county's recycling handler, has been taking all other plastics to the landfill.

He said the county learned that only recently and moved to limit the plastic to only what was not being dumped. He said he is "just as frustrated" as those who thought they were doing the right thing by recycling more of their plastics.

"I'd be happy if somebody will take it," Adams said. "The others [who would] want it bundled, and it's not worth our cost to do that for the amount we get."

The city of Chattanooga, according to its website, will take plastics #1 through #7 in its curbside collection but only takes plastics #1 and #2 at its recycle centers.

But it's the fast-food boxes and bags, wrappers and plastic on the sides of roads and under bridges that are marring the Scenic City. Citizens have had it. It's embarrassing.

New Chattanooga Mayor Tim Kelly has pledged to reduce the overall proliferation of trash, but in the meantime some people are taking on the problem themselves.

Times Free Press columnist Mark Kennedy recently profiled a Rhode Island transplant couple who found themselves complaining to each other that someone should do something about the litter they observed in their daily walks. They decided to be those somebodies, and they now pick up garbage bags full of trash on their five-mile Mountain Creek Road loops.

Elsewhere, the Downtown Chattanooga Alliance is paying homeless individuals $4 each for up to five 30-gallon bags they can fill with litter every day. In return, the Cash for Trash program issues a redemption card that can be used at any of 22 downtown businesses.

That littering? It really is against the law in the city:

The city code, for instance, says: "It shall be unlawful for any person to throw or deposit or to cause to be thrown or deposited, any rubbish or waste matter in or upon any vacant lot or in any backyard, or on or upon any street or other public place in the city," and "It shall be unlawful for any person to throw, discard, deposit, dispose of, or allow any trash, garbage, waste, scraps of food, vegetables, fruits, meat, industrial or processed waste or the like into, about, around or near any stream or body of water, regardless of size, within the confines of the city."

Those guilty of the above, and many other trashy offenses, "shall be guilty of a misdemeanor and punishable by a fine of not less than ten dollars ($10.00) nor more than fifty dollars ($50.00)."

Let's stop being the Tennessee Trash "enemy" and protect the "scenic" in Scenic City.

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