Mar. 7—ESPAÑOLA — Restraint from littering on New Mexico highways appears to have flown out the window, along with plastic bags and fast-food containers, any kind of trash imaginable.
The problem has become so pervasive that state Department of Transportation highway crews could spend all of their time cleaning up litter, Cabinet Secretary Michael Sandoval said last week. Sandoval called for personal responsibility, nudged by an upcoming public awareness campaign.
A spokeswoman said the Transportation Department soon will revive a familiar campaign created in the 1990s — "Toss No Mas" — in media outlets.
For a state that trades on its natural beauty, highway litter is a bad look. Though there are no statistics to determine whether littering has worsened in recent years — cleanup crews say it has — Sandoval said he has seen people flipping trash out their car windows.
You only need to look at interchanges along Interstate 25 and beside state highways to see littering is a problem.
"I don't know why it's continuing to get worse, but I feel that it has," Sandoval said. "That is embarrassing, and it's something that's very preventable."
Cindy Smiles, co-owner of the Sweet Santa Fe candy and dessert shop in the Fashion Outlets center just south of the city, has heard people joke that New Mexico's state flower should be a plastic bag stuck to a weed instead of the yucca blossom.
The interchange off I-25 near the outlet center "looks like a dump area," she said.
Nearby, Inn at Santa Fe general manager Danielle Rockwood agreed the problem seems to have worsened.
"I know growing up, I've always been told not to be a litterbug," Rockwood said. "I think it's just people dropping the ball."
The Transportation Department spent $3.2 million on litter cleanup in budget year 2020 and is on track for a similar expenditure this year for labor, equipment and supplies. The department said that so far in 2020-21, about 45,800 hours of labor have been devoted to highway litter cleanup.
"We could be picking up trash all the time, 24/7. ... We could spend $25 million a year," Sandoval said.
The Transportation Department said it uses 886 staffers for litter cleanup and other highway maintenance work.
The state Tourism Department awarded $778,700 to 37 communities in 2020-21 through its New Mexico Clean and Beautiful program for litter control, recycling and beautification.
Luna County in the southwest corner of the state received one of those grants. Joe Padilla, program administrator for Luna's Clean and Beautiful effort, said it has been difficult to bring civic and youth volunteers together for litter removal in 2020-21.
The coronavirus pandemic and social-distancing requirements have prevented large groups from assembling, Padilla said, adding that may have contributed to litter.
Nevertheless, cleanup wouldn't be necessary if people didn't toss trash around.
"It is currently very bad," he said "It's disheartening."
"Certain places are terrible," observed Don Dunn of Eldorado as he walked out of a convenience shop north of Santa Fe. "They need a team and a big vacuum cleaner."
In some cases, there's no vacuum cleaner big enough. A Transportation Department cleanup crew working highways north of Española has come across discarded toilets and mattresses, TVs and couches, wigs and mannequin heads, and the more standard stuff — plastic cups and bags, dirty diapers and dead pets, coronavirus masks and gloves.
They've also seen an occasional dollar bill, adult toys and plenty of "trucker bombs" — bottles into which drivers urinate.
Trash soils many highway interchanges, with nearby fences acting as backstops for junk. Litter also sullies some roadside descansos — memorials at accident sites.
Some highway turnouts and parking areas look like dump spots, said Beto Sinaloa, an assistant highway maintenance supervisor for the crew just north of Española.
Highway trash pickup is "like a never-ending battle," Sinaloa said as he used his trash-grabbing pole Wednesday along N.M. 68.
The work can be dangerous. Leonard Martinez, a member of that crew, grabbed a bag one day and a needle pierced his gloved hand.
"It scared the hell out of me," Martinez said. He feared infection or worse, but a doctor determined he was OK.
Flashing blue and yellow lights on state pickups and flatbeds alert other drivers to the presence of the crews. Nelson Terrazas, supervisor of the crew that Martinez and Sinaloa work on, said the cleanup generally isn't appreciated by the public.
A driver occasionally gives them a thumbs-up, but more show a middle finger or honk because their travel has been impeded slightly, Terrazas and other crew members said.
"They don't care," highway maintenance worker Bernie Trujillo said. "It's sad to see."
Department of Transportation spokeswoman Marisa Maez said 13 workers have suffered strains and sprains during litter pickup over the past five years, but no one has been struck by vehicles.
Crews typically spend one day a week on litter cleanup. They also remove snow from highways, patch potholes, repair signs and guardrails, clear out drainage culverts and do other tasks. They earn roughly $30,000 a year, depending on their experience and responsibilities.
Maez said through a text message that the public education campaign will start this spring.
"We are spending taxpayer dollars cleaning up roadside litter when that money could be better spent," she wrote. "We need to start at the source of the issue and get people to stop treating our roadsides like their personal dumps."
State law says people can be fined $50 for littering, but Sandoval, the transportation secretary, said enforcement is rare. Law enforcement officers have more urgent priorities, he noted.
Sandoval said tourists in New Mexico love its open spaces and mountains, but state government representatives hear complaints from them about litter. Really, he said, it's a personal responsibility problem.
Last week, Alex George walked his dog, Red, down a dirt trail near an I-25 frontage road south of Santa Fe. George said of the trash: "It's pretty bad, like, right here."
To the north and south of George and Red were the steel-tinted mountains and the vast prairie. A hawk circled and a bluebird flitted. There wasn't a cloud anywhere.
And strewn on the ground were plastic bags of various shades and sizes.