Amount of Tennessee road litter has fallen 12% since 2016, study says

Staff Photo / Dave, left, and Julie Bayer pick up trash along West Ridge Trial Road as part of Keep Soddy-Daisy Beautiful's litter cleanup in 2021 in Soddy-Daisy, Tenn.
Staff Photo / Dave, left, and Julie Bayer pick up trash along West Ridge Trial Road as part of Keep Soddy-Daisy Beautiful's litter cleanup in 2021 in Soddy-Daisy, Tenn.

NASHVILLE — Volunteer State residents of a certain age may well remember the state Department of Transportation's 1976 TV ad "Tennessee Trash."

The eye-grabbing spot featured a disheveled man gleefully careening down a highway in his filthy white convertible, flinging empty glass bottles and cans while occasionally casting bags of trash from his vehicle, all to the tune of a song called "Tennessee Trash."

Nearly a half-century later, Tennessee has made advances. But litter remains. And a newly released 2022 study by the Tennessee Department of Transportation and the group Keep Tennessee Beautiful shows plenty of room remains for improvement in curbing litter, officials acknowledge.

"While encouraging, there are still more than an estimated 88.5 million pieces of litter on public roads at any given time," TDOT Transportation Supervisor Denise Baker said in a news release.

The figure represents a 12% decrease from the estimated 100 million pieces of litter in a 2016 survey. The survey is intended to provide a comprehensive understanding of quantity, composition and sources of litter along the state's public roadways, from interstates to U.S. highways and from Tennessee highways to local roads.

Based on "Litter Index" observations by roadway classification, local roads have the most sites with the least litter. Interstates had the highest number of littered sites. State highways contained the highest number of sites that scored slightly littered or littered.

"This indicates that local roads were the least littered, while interstates and state highways were the most littered," the study says. "Since the large majority of litter is discarded by motorists ... higher motorist traffic on interstates and state highways likely contributes to the comparatively higher litter counts at these sites."

The study assessed litter at 120 selected sites across Tennessee. Surveyed sites included Interstate 24 in Chattanooga and I-24 on Monteagle as well as I-75 in Cleveland and Calhoun.

Plastics are an issue, accounting for 37% of the litter statewide. Next came paper (22%) and cigarette butts (13%). Metal accounted for 12%, while glass was pegged at 9%. Tire treads were 3%.

Officials gauged litter by two size categories — above and below 4 inches long. Plastic items made up 48% of the litter in the 4-inch-plus category, while metal items made up 15%.

The engineering firm Burns & McDonnell and Keep Tennessee Beautiful conducted the study with TDOT to provide a comprehensive understanding of quantity, composition and sources of litter along the state's public roadways.

"Motorists were determined to be the leading sources of litter on Tennessee roadways," according to the study.

The study leverages a 2020 Keep America Beautiful Nationwide Litter Study to identify how litter has changed over time, determine the relationship between roadside litter and site characteristics, assess the effect of nearby infrastructure and also socioeconomic factors.

The study is one of several avenues of research that helps TDOT evaluate progress on litter abatement in order to make the most effective use of future litter prevention and cleanup resources, Baker said.

Too much litter

House Transportation Committee Vice Chairman Greg Vital, R-Harrison, said by phone Tuesday that while he's happy to hear of improvements, he believes more work is needed to reduce litter, citing his own efforts at cleaning it up.

"As far as the statistics are concerned, I'm excited to hear that we have a drop," Vital said. "However, most Tennesseans know we have way too much litter and still do. And as somebody who picks up a lot of trash and participates in litter pickup, we have areas where we're still having illegal dumping and litter from motorists at a level that's unacceptable."

He said he sees more litter underneath overpasses and on country roads as well illegal dumping in the Tennessee River.

"One of the biggest challenges we've got overall is the amount of trash that gets into our waterways and streams," Vital said. "The Tennessee River is the most polluted river from microplastics, and it's because of the large amount of trash now that's plastics."

He said he participates in litter pickup efforts not only on his farm but at public events and alongside rivers.

The state's methodology included the random selection of 120 roadway locations split evenly among the roadway classifications in both urban and rural areas of Tennessee.

Tennessee spends about $5.5 million a year on litter pickup grants and education. It's partly funded by a tax on soft drinks and malt beverages. The state also provides litter grants to local governments. In all, state government spends about $23 million annually on its efforts.

The state's anti-litter campaign is called "Nobody Trashes Tennessee." Officials have sought to engage schools, students and others through social and digital media.

Officials have also worked with others, including the Tennessee Aquarium in Chattanooga, to reach out to children and other residents about litter.

And instead of the 1976 TV spot featuring the disheveled man in a filthy convertible, the state has used a more friendly-looking cartoon of a red cup to do its talking on social media.

Still, Tennessee didn't fare well at all in 2022 in a broader trash study conducted by LawnStarter. The company compared all 50 states based on their waste-reducing policies, infrastructure, waste production and recycling rates.

When it came to public policies on promoting recycling, banning plastic bags and encouraging container reuse, Tennessee ranked as the second worst state, behind only Arizona, according to the LawnStarter study.

Contact Andy Sher at or 615-285-9480.

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