‘Beer bottles, mattresses, ladders’: Maryland crews tackle cleanup of 17,000 miles of roadway

Operation Clean Sweep is underway on Maryland highways

Crews spent hours picking their way along the shoulder of Interstate 370 in Gaithersburg, Maryland, and by noon, they had already filled huge trash bags full of what either falls or gets tossed from cars and trucks.

It’s part of “Operation Clean Sweep,” the Maryland Department of Transportation State Highway Administration’s continuing effort to clear trash and debris from state roads. And the crews have a lot of ground to cover: MDOT SHA maintains more than 17,000 miles of non-tolled state roads.

The cleanup isn’t just an issue of cosmetics. Large debris can create road hazards, causing cars to swerve as they come up on anything from piles of documents to furniture in the highway. Smaller items can collect in the shoulder of travel lanes, clogging drainage outlets. And items can get washed into area creeks and streams, ending up in the Chesapeake Bay.

Carey Mowatt, a 13-year veteran of MDOT SHA road crews, ticked off some of the most commonly found items.

“Beer bottles, mattresses, ladders,” and then, he said, there are the animals that are struck by the side of the road. Deer are common, and he said along Route 28 in the Rockville area, the remains of coyotes have also been found.

Safety is always on the minds of workers. Signs warning that litter pickup is underway appear on the roadway before drivers spot the line of orange cones signaling that lanes are narrowing and they need to move over. As the teams move along the shoulder with trash bags and tools that allow them to snag all kinds of trash, the huge, orange MDOT trucks move alongside, providing an added buffer.

As one crew member picks up a 40-ounce beer bottle from the side of the road, Mowatt said there are times the repetitive nature of the job can get to him. But he said that’s when he keeps in mind that the work is important.

“I’ve got to reassure our staff that we’re making the community a better place and keep a positive attitude so they come out and do a good job,” he said.

Carey Mowatt is a 13-year veteran of MDOT SHA road crews. (WTOP/Kate Ryan)

Mowatt said it appears there are times trucks lose items that aren’t secured as they pass through the region, but many times, trash gets tossed from passenger vehicles. His teams rarely catch anyone in the act of littering.

“But we have gotten calls from customers saying they’ve seen people doing stuff, illegally dumping and stuff like that,” he said.

Aside from urging people to keep trash where it belongs — and off roadways — Mowatt asks drivers to “slow down, move over and be patient.”

Mowatt said, from time to time, drivers will become annoyed, but “we do have people that give us a thumbs-up and honk and tell us we’re doing a good job.”

And, he said, looking at the crew’s handiwork from the morning’s job can be satisfying to see when there’s a large swath of grassy, trash-free roadway and know he and the people he works with make that happen.

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Kate Ryan

As a member of the award-winning WTOP News, Kate is focused on state and local government. Her focus has always been on how decisions made in a council chamber or state house affect your house. She's also covered breaking news, education and more.

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