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As roadside litter piles up in Kansas City, volunteers step in with trash bags

A man bends down next to a pile of about 20 yellow trash bags. The are on the side of a six-lane highway.
Savannah Hawley-Bates
KCUR 89.3
Cory Lamaster has been leading litter cleanups for months now. He's frustrated by the lack of urgency from the state and the city and says the amount of litter keeps growing.

Litter cleanup has stalled since the onset of the pandemic, and citizens upset about the state of the metro’s roadways have taken matters into their own hands. According to government officials, volunteers will need to keep their trash bags handy for the foreseeable future.

On a brisk Saturday morning, Cory Lamaster hands out yellow Missouri Department of Transportation trash bags that say “No MOre Trash” to a small group who volunteered to pick up litter. The group gathered off Interstate 470 near the Pryor Road exit. After parking their cars on the side of the busy interstate, they got straight to work.

The team filled more than 20 bags with water bottles, cigarette butts, fast food containers, tire rims, wood planks and even insulation from about a 1,000-foot stretch of road.

There are nearly 24 billion pieces of litter along U.S. roadways. Lamaster has seen the Kansas City area’s litter problem worsen in the past few years and is desperately trying to make a dent in the trash.

“I love the environment,” Lamaster says. “I think we could all agree that the amount of litter we're seeing along our roadways is a huge issue. And it’s honestly gotten depressing, just because Kansas City used to be one of the cleanest cities my wife and I would visit. But that can’t be said anymore.”

Lamaster began organizing cleanups last fall and says he’s gotten many people to join — Travis Smothers being one of them. He’s been going to trash pickups for a few months now after he met Lamaster on NextDoor.

“The conception (of litter) is it's horrible and getting worse, but nobody's really doing anything,” Smothers says.

Lamaster has been trying for months to get MoDOT, which is in charge of litter cleanup along highways and major roadways, as well as various cities around the metro, to step up their cleanup programs, but hasn’t had much success.

Matt Killion, assistant district engineer of operations for MoDOT’s Kansas City region, says the organization doesn’t have enough resources to dedicate to litter cleanup. Instead, they focus on “higher priority items,” like patching potholes and removing snow and brush.

“Typically the litter falls lower on the priority list, but we do look for opportunities to remove litter from the roadsides with our own crews,” Killion says.

Next to a blue sedan, a man in a brown hoodie and beanie bends down to put a piece of litter in a yellow trash bag. Behind him, a woman in an orange safety vest does the same.
Savannah Hawley-Bates
KCUR 89.3
Katie Mahoney (Left) and Cory Lamaster have both been recruiting people to join in on the litter cleanup efforts on NextDoor. They've so far been successful, but Mahoney says MoDOT should take more responsibility for the roads it controls.

MoDOT doesn’t collect data on how much litter is on area roads. Killion says the amount of litter correlates to the amount of traffic on the road. According to him, most of the litter comes from trucks and trailers, as well as people who don’t have their belongings properly secured.

Lamaster has also seen litter increase in areas with high development. Since construction began on a new apartment complex off I-470 and Pryor Road, Lamaster has been picking up more and more plywood, styrofoam and insulation that falls off construction trucks.

“It's great to see development happen like that, but I think the contractors, builders and developers need to take accountability to not only build properties that are useful and great for the city but also keep the area around it clean,” Lamaster says.

MoDOT has contracted Interstate Business Solutions — a litter cleanup service based in Indiana — to clean Kansas City’s major roadways every two weeks.

“I'm amazed at how much trash our contractor does pick up,” Killion says. “We do a two-week cycle and every two weeks on the same stretch of road, we'll pick up over a thousand pounds a day. So the trash keeps coming.”

While he says MoDOT’s cleaning contract is an improvement, Lamaster thinks the biweekly schedule isn’t enough.

“We were out here for an hour and the amount of litter that we just picked up in maybe a sixteenth of a mile, this highway alone needs probably 300 to 500 hours of time to really make a difference,” he says.

Katie Mahoney volunteered at the cleanup Lamaster organized. She runs a litter cleanup group of her own in South Kansas City. After about three years of picking up litter around the metro, Mahoney is confident that the problem isn’t just on the major highways and interstates.

“It's a citywide problem,” she says. “I mean, you can drive anywhere and see that there’s trash, furniture, tires — pick your spot, you'll find plenty of litter.”

The City of Kansas City provides free bags residents can use to clean up litter. Once filled, they can call 311 to pick up the blue bags or put them out to be picked up on trash day.

Michael Shaw, director of public works for Kansas City, says residential trash has gotten worse since the onset of the pandemic, when crews and volunteer groups couldn’t work as normal.

A man in dressed in jeans with an orange beanie and vest puts a piece of insulation into a yellow trash bags.
Savannah Hawley-Bates
KCUR 89.3
Travis Smothers puts a large piece of insulation into his bag, one of many found along the side of the interstate. A new apartment complex is being built across the six-lane road, and Lamaster said litter increases exponentially where development takes place.

This year Kansas City has begun to build its collection programs back up. The city also started a new program, Clean Up KC, in September.

Through the program, the public works department and Hope Faith KC partner to employ unhoused people to clean up neighborhoods around the city for $15 an hour. Shaw estimates that they cleaned up more than 67,000 pounds of trash along Kansas City roadways from August to November.

Shaw says litter in neighborhoods has increased since the pandemic and people are home more. In response, the city passed a cleanup plan in June that includes more bulky item pickup and dumpster days, as well as providing larger, lidded recycling bins to residents.

“More people are at home, so that means they’re generating more trash and more recycling at home,” Shaw says. “We have to put some more focus on our residential side of the service and then try to nip some of that problem at the source.”

The lidded recycling bins will be the size of a residential trash can instead of the smaller, 32-gallon open tubs currently used. Shaw believes the bins, which will be released in May of next year, will reduce items currently spilling out of the smaller, overstuffed tubs.

Mahoney says she believes Kansas City is getting better at handling the litter problem. Ultimately, she thinks MoDOT has miles of improvements to make.

“It does fall back on MoDOT,” Mahoney says. “This is their responsibility to keep our highways clean and safe.”

Killion says MoDOT is working to expand the litter contract to cover more roadways in the metro. Still, both Kansas City public works and MoDOT are understaffed.

“Our inability to do it with our own crews stems from a staffing shortage and our inability to hire maintenance workers to work on our roads,” Killion says. “So that's a big piece of why we're not doing it ourselves as much as we may have used to.”

Without proper staffing, both the state and the city will continue to rely on people like Lamaster and Mahoney to organize cleanups.

“Everyone has to collaborate,” Shaw says. “The city itself doesn't litter. It's the people who are within the city and that are driving through the city. So we have to look at everything about the programs that we're providing to our community, and we have to ask our community to help us.”

Getting people to volunteer to clean up trash on a highway is hard since, according to Lamaster, “this isn't the most fun thing to do.” But he welcomes the possibility of new volunteers.

“Once you pick up litter, I don't think you would ever litter again,” Lamaster says. “I honestly think that would be something that you would pay attention to. You would never throw trash in the back of your truck and have the risk of it blowing out when you're driving along the highway.”

When news breaks, it can be easy to rely on officials and people in power to get information fast. As KCUR’s general assignment and breaking news reporter, I want to bring you the human faces of the day’s biggest stories. Whether it’s a local shop owner or a worker on the picket line, I want to give you the stories of the real people who are driving change in the Kansas City area. Email me at savannahhawley@kcur.org or follow me on Twitter @savannahhawley.
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