By Marlana Ward
The people of Johnson County have always taken great pride in the natural beauty that their mountain home affords.
While most seek out ways to preserve the landscape they have been blessed to live within, damaged roadways and waterways littered with garbage and unwanted goods are common.
A ride down any county road will give evidence of the careless and disrespectful actions of individuals who would ruin the region’s naturally beautiful surroundings.
Litter along roadways is made up of several different types and causes, and no part of the county is immune to the plague of trash. “It is consistent throughout the county,” said Road Superintendent Darrell Reece. “It mostly consists of fast food bags, wrappers, cans, and bottles.” Property owners within Johnson County can attest to the abundance of those mentioned above as most have had to take time out of their busy schedules to clean trash a passerby has tossed from their window and into their lawn.
County Litter Control Officer Sandy Hammons shared the sources of the county’s litter when she said, “Some toss it out of their windows here and there, but there are also paid trash haulers who refuse to tarp their loads. I have watched one of these trucks lose four bags as I traveled behind him in Trade.”
People who choose to throw garbage out their window or fail to secure trash properly during hauling may believe that their portion of the litter is insignificant. When numerous people share that same sentiment, the amount of refuse builds and the trash collected becomes a heavy load.
Hammons said that the most recent trash pick up by inmates totaled 1,720 pounds in Sink Valley; 1,720 pounds in Big Dry Run; 800 pounds along Lakeview Drive, and 840 pounds on Antioch Road from the turnoff at 421 to the top of the hill.
“Based on recent litter pickups, we have been averaging 20 full (30 gallons) bags per mile,” Superintendent Reece added.
Over ten years ago, Johnson County began the Litter Control Department to try to combat the pollution along roadways. The continued support of the Litter Pickup and Litter Prevention Education Grant allows the county to not only improve the litter situation but also work in conjunction with the 2007 Tennessee Litter Law.
Under the Litter Law, offenders are subject to fines, jail time, and permanent criminal records if convicted of malicious littering. The problematic part of enforcing these judgments comes with the inability to identify the offenders. Most convictions can only come when names are found on pieces of refuse. “If I find a name,” Hammons stated, “I can work with the District Attorney to prosecute.”
Hammons encourages residents who hire someone to haul their trash to make sure that the business, which picks up their garbage, securely tarps the loads because if the resident’s name is found among the litter along the roadway, they could be held responsible.
According to Tennessee’s Litter Law, the amount of litter as well as the intent of the litterer is taken into account when sentencing is determined.
For example Section 39-14-503: Mitigated Criminal Littering is defined as less than five pounds or 7.5 cubic feet of material and is subject to a misdemeanor charge and $50 fine. Section 39-14-504: Criminal Littering includes five to ten pounds of material and is classified as a Class B misdemeanor with a sentence of $500 in fines with additional court costs, public service pick up, work in the county recycling center, and possibly six months in jail. A conviction of Aggravated Criminal Littering (Section 39-14-505/6), which includes over ten pounds or over 15 cubic feet of trash, is punishable with a $2,500 fine, 160 hours of public service, and could include up to 11 months and 29 days in jail.
While litter is found on every roadway and elicits complaints from residents and visitors alike, finding the funds and time to collect the garbage is difficult. “With the Highway Department staff being limited in numbers and designated to county road maintenance, there are limited opportunities for assistance in litter control,” Reece said.
Also contributing to the litter problem within the county is the mindset that there is nothing wrong with throwing trash from one’s window. “I have heard multiple times ‘I’m just giving the inmates something to do,’” stated Hammons. This way of thinking affects the youth of the county, and Hammons hopes to bring litter awareness programs back to the county schools with the education funds allowed under the grant. “I am working towards having a program that includes a magician who helps teach the kids about littering,” said Hammons. “Making it fun helps it to stick with them later in life.”
Fighting litter in Johnson County is a responsibility for all citizens to share. “It will take the total support of the county, and I would like to see more people involved to solve the problem,” said Reece. “I’m open to any suggestion or support from anybody wanting to address the litter problem in the county.”
Hammons wants to encourage residents to take an active role in preventing and collecting litter in the area. “Volunteers are always welcomed and appreciated,” she said. “I am at the Recycling Collection Center on Mondays from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. and would love to talk with anyone interested.”
Hammons also asks that anyone who is unable to discard their garbage appropriately due to finances to speak with her. “If you cannot afford trash pick up, please come speak with me. Just please do not throw your trash out along the road.”