MIDLAND, Texas — West Texans have a lot to say about litter in their cities.
“Oh God, it’s so disgusting,” said concerned citizen Fonda Chalmers. “Our city used to be so beautiful.”
“Windy season is here, and the mesquite trees are blooming plastic bags,” said Odessa Mayor Javier Joven.
“It’s bad, it’s really trashy,” said concerned citizen Max Floyd.
“Especially when you’re driving in from out of town, that’s the first thing you see when you hit the city limits,” said Floyd.
“It’s going to take the whole community to pitch in and clean up,” said concerned citizen Mike Pierce. “There’s a lot we can do.”
“Trash is something you tie in your bag and put in the dumpster,” said Executive Director of Keep Midland Beautiful Doreen Womack. “Litter is trash that got away.”
It’s the first thing you see when you drive into town.
“The entrances into our community are so littered,” said Womack. “That first impression is that we don’t care.”
A bad first impression no one wants.
“Moved out of Houston to here two years ago and was shocked at the amount of litter here,” said Pierce. “I mean, I lived in a city of five million people in Houston, and you never saw this kind of litter.”
“With all of our wind here, and it blows everywhere and gets hung up on all the Mesquite and everything around, and it just blows,” said Chalmers. “It’s just horrible.”
And for those who live here, many agree the litter problem just seems to be getting worse.
“Really just kind of makes your heart sink,” said Chalmers. “You go other places, and it looks clean.”
If you dig a little deeper, you’ll find just about everything… even the kitchen sink.
“It’s like an iceberg,” said Pierce. “What’s under the surface, there’s a lot more to it.”
Some people may blame the wind for this ugly mess.
“The wind’s been blowing around here since dinosaurs roamed the earth, it’s not the wind,” said Pierce. “Yes, it may push it around, but really it’s a human problem."
So where is all this litter coming from? A lot of places. But one might surprise you. It starts with the trash you’re throwing out.
It’s loose trash, not in tightly secured bags, that’s a real problem. Especially when it’s windy.
“Trucks pick up the container and dump it this way,” said Midland City Councilman Dan Corrales. “When that container goes upside down, whatever is in it, the wind will catch it if it’s a really bad day.”
But there is another problem contributing to all this litter.
“Pickup trucks I think are a big problem,” said Pierce. “People throw stuff in the back of the pickup truck thinking they’re going to get it later, throw it away later. And when they get where they’re going, it’s not there. It’s blown away.”
Some of the trash can be extra disturbing.
“A lot of people are getting to where they just don’t care,” said Chalmers. “You always see people just tossing things out their window. And you’ll see diapers and stuff. People just open their door and just leave it there. People just need to have a little more pride where they live.”
It’s not just little things people are dumping.
“Very disappointed in people,” said Thomas Jackson, whose alley is littered with tires. “They’re coming out here and using our neighborhood for a dumping area.”
In just a matter of a few weeks, tires have been showing up in Jackson's alley.
“These are tires you see on the 18-wheeler truck, tires that go down the highway, and them babies weigh close to 200 pounds a piece,” said Jackson.
Jackson and his neighbors try to keep their alleys clean, but the tires are just too heavy. Even more frustrating is that overnight more were added. This time, pickup tires.
“I guess they see these truck tires are out here and it gives them the go ahead to add to the pile,” said Jackson.
So why dump here? No one’s really sure, but the reason behind it is pretty clear to Jackson.
“One thing, they’re trying to save money, I guess,” said Jackson. “They figure they can pick on us poor innocent people. Just dump it wherever they please to save them some money.”
Alleys are a popular dumping spot. From couches, to mattresses and appliances, city workers have noticed it’s getting worse.
“It’s been some years now that we’ve noticed,” said Midland Assistant Director of Solid Waste Shaquawanna Carter. “With the oil industry, you have the ups and downs. The growth of Midland. You have people coming from different states and cities.”
This litter can be found everywhere. Not just in certain parts of town. Trying to keep up with it isn’t easy.
“It can be a little defeating at times,” said Carter. “You know, we take pride in our city. We want our city to stay clean.”
There’s really no one person to blame for this mess. But many people agree, if our cities look trashy, it gives the impression that we don’t care either.
“You don’t think anybody else cares, how easy is it for you not to, right?” said concerned citizen Misty Thomason.
So why isn’t this ugly mess getting cleaned up? Some people blame our cities. But the hard reality is, there’s just not enough people to go around.
“We cannot employ enough people to fill all the needs of our community,” said Midland Mayor Lori Blong. “It’s a difficult thing to hire people to pick up trash. We have limited resources, and we do the best that we can with those resources to pick up litter.”
The mounds of littler along our loops and highways aren’t the city's job either. The state takes care of that. The Texas Department of Transportation hires contract crews to come out a couple of times a month to clean up.
Volunteer groups help too. You’ve probably seen Adopt-a-Highway signs with piles of trash bags nearby. But let’s face it, there are miles and miles of highways.
A lot of you may be wondering why groups like Keep Midland Beautiful or Keep Odessa Beautiful aren’t bagging up the mess. While they hold community cleanups, they rely strictly on volunteers from the community to help.
“In our community cleanups in the spring and fall, we traditionally get one to two percent of the community that comes out to clean,” said Womack. “That’s a handful of people compared to the amount of litter that we’re getting. Sadly, there’s areas of the community that we haven’t had a group clean up in two to three years.”
You may have seen inmates cleaning up trash too. So, why aren’t they being used more?
“We would love to have a chain gang out there picking up trash, but it’s just a staffing issue and a classification issue,” said Ector County Sheriff Mike Griffis.
Only a handful can actually go out and clean up. At the Ector County Sheriff’s Office, there’s one deputy that watches over the inmates, and only four go out at a time.
Most importantly, the sheriff’s office must make sure they’re safe.
“It’s not necessarily just what they do to get in jail, but it’s their behavior while they’re in jail,” said Griffis. “They get classified. They have to meet a certain classification to be able to go outside the secure facility to work.”
And something you may not know is that you can’t legally force inmates to clean up.
“They’re all volunteer,” said Griffis. “They want to work and do what they can outside the facility, and most of them are here for very minor crimes, and they’re doing their time, and going about their way.”
As for the biggest eyesore of all… you can’t ban plastic bags in Texas. Fort Stockton tried, but the Texas Supreme Court ruled that a state law on waste forbids cities from doing that.
“That plastic bag and it’s contents is sold waste, and you can’t ban solid waste,” said Joven. “So, what is the solution? The solution is to redefine the plastic bag and the contents. We need to go to the legislature to redefine that.”
We don’t know when or if that will ever happen, so what are we going to do about this mess? It all boils down to one thing — us.
“I believe that each of us as individuals who live in our community are responsible for keeping our community clean,” said Blong. “And yes, we want the city of Midland to clean up, but really it’s individual citizens who need to take that responsibility and we need to do our part.”
“It starts with the person in the mirror,” said Joven. “The problem was created by us, and if we really care about this issue then we can solve it.”
So where do we start? One answer can be found at a park, where Girl Scouts are picking up trash, but they are also learning something new.
“Hi, my name is Reagan and I'm going to teach y’all how to tie love knots,” said Reagan Avis, who teaches how to tie Love Knots.
Yes, you read that right, love knots.
"Make a loop like you’re tying your shoes,” said Avis.
Tying up trash bags tightly so the trash won’t fall out.
“Just keeping it to yourself and tying it into a knot when you’re done with it before throwing it away will help a lot,” said Avis.
“If you tie your trash and take it out to where it is supposed to be and make sure that dumpster lid is shut, it’s just little bitty things you can add to your routine that helps,” said Thomason.
And if you are throwing out trash, don’t pile it on to an overflowing trash bin.
“If a trash can is full, hang on to your trash so it doesn’t blow out,” said Womack.
Mike Pierce decided he was fed up with all the litter lying around town.
When he moved here, he was concerned about the litter in his adopted hometown. Then he heard a call from a former mayor.
“You know, he said, ‘Hey, if you don’t like it, pick it up,’ and you know, it was kind of hard to hear,” said Pierce. “It was kind of a tough love story. And I started thinking about it and I’m like, ‘I don’t like it, so I’m going to start picking it up.’ So, I adopted the street by my house.”
Pierce now volunteers to help pick up trash during community cleanups.
“I always get a kick out of the red bull cans when I pick them up, because I think people with that much energy don’t even have enough energy to clean up after themselves,” said Pierce.
He encourages everyone to volunteer too. Even if you’re just cleaning up around your neighborhood.
“There’s just a million things we can do to stop this,” said Pierce. “I hope we can.”
If you see someone throwing out litter on purpose, you can report it by going to www.dontmesswithtexas.org.
They have all the information on how you can report that person to TxDOT.
As for alleys that look like a landfill, there’s help. Don’t just leave it by the dumpster. You can call the city to pick it up in Midland and Odessa.
“Mattresses, water heaters, couches, anything of that sort, you can contact our office and we can put it on a pickup list, and we’ll get those items removed,” said Carter. “Now the list is a little bit lengthy, so we do ask that everyone be patient.”
If you need to get rid of a big item, our cities also have drop off days where they schedule city-wide pickups.
Or if you just can’t stand the sight of it, you can dump off old mattresses and furniture at the Midland Citizens Collection Station.
You can also stop by the Citizen Bulk Item Drop-Off in Odessa.
If those big items are in good shape, you can also consider selling them online, on an app or donating to charity.
And if you hate those plastic bags you see everywhere, the best option is not to use them and bring a reusable bag instead.
It’s one less plastic bag that can get loose.
“The plastic bags, we see them everywhere,” said Corrales. “If you can, go to the supermarket with a bag you can reuse every time you go so you don’t need to use plastic bags. Because where do they end up? In the dump, if they don’t end up in the dump, they end up in a tree somewhere.”
Several stores offer them to buy at the cash register, and some groups like Keep Odessa Beautiful hand them out for free.
“We give them all over the city,” said Executive Director of Keep Odessa Beautiful Claudia Ortega. “We give out over 7,000 bags annually."
And for small things… if you don’t need a bag, don’t take one.
“If they go buy a lipstick and get something small, it starts with refusing,” said Ortega. “I don’t need that. I can put that in my purse. Simple things we can do like that as citizens to help with those bags, to refuse those bags.”
Some grocery stores and big box stores have plastic bag recycling bins.
But the reality is, most of it ends up in our mesquite trees and landfills.
Many recycling businesses just don’t take them. They’re too difficult to recycle, partly because they jam up recycling machines at plants.
But a lot of this other litter you can recycle here in West Texas.
Cardboard, paper, tin cans, aluminum cans and #1 and #2 plastics, like water bottles, soda bottles and milk jugs.
In Midland, just drop them off at the Citizens Collection Station.
But pay close attention to the signs on what can and can’t be recycled. You don’t want to contaminate the bin with trash.
“If it says paper, just put in paper,” said Corrales. “If it says cardboard, just put in cardboard, or whatever it may be. We have, unfortunately, some people who will put garbage in those containers, thinking it’s just garbage.”
If a load is contaminated when it’s picked up, it will all have to be taken to the landfill.
You can’t recycle at Odessa’s Time Machine right now. It’s shut down while changes are being made to the facility. The city is also re-evaluating its recycling program overall.
But you can recycle at BRI Recycling in Midland.
“We just kind of dabble with this stuff,” said Kevin Butts of BRI Recycling. “We just go to the local metal dealer and send it over there. There’s still a demand for it."
BRI takes our recycling here in West Texas. Some people think that the stuff you put in the recycling bin doesn’t actually get recycled. But here, that’s not the case.
“We’ve got 36 years of doing this,” said Butts. “We’re dinosaurs at this. We’ve got three brokers lined up for all of our products. So, if one doesn’t want it, two doesn’t want it, I know dang well three will take it. We want all the top tier people to take our products.”
So where is it all going? It’s a lot closer to thank you think.
“Okay this is mixed paper,” said Butts. “We’ll take any type of paper, which is fine. Mixed paper, most of our stuff goes to Mexico. We’re in a good spot to go to Mexico from here. The mills need recycled paper. They don’t really want the trees. They can fall back on it if they need to, but they want recycled paper first.”
Most cardboard goes to Mexico too, and some places in the U.S.
“Cardboard is always in demand,” said Butts. “When you think about it, everybody’s getting a package delivered to their doorstep. We move over 5 to 800 tons of cardboard in a month."
As for that plastic... it’s sent to a company in the U.S. and turned into everything from active wear and shoes, to mats and rugs.
One of the best things you can recycle is aluminum cans. There’s a big demand for them, and the reason might surprise you.
“Back in the 70’s when you went to a convenience store and opened up the door, probably nine out of 10 of these were aluminum cans,” said Butts. “Now when you go to the store, nine out of 10 are plastic bottles, so there’s very few of these. Now everything has switched over to plastic. Why? Because it’s cheaper.”
Whether you recycle, or join in a community cleanup, anything, no matter how small, helps.
“I’ve gotten people at work to recycle,” said one citizen. “We should all recycle so we don’t live in a Wally World and our kids can grow up in a good environment. Give to the earth, because the earth gives to us.”
“You walk by it, pick it up and put it in a container,” said Joven. “You get a coffee cup or bottle, put it in the container. They’re available, or wait until you get home, or wait until they’re available.”
“If you’re buying something and the clerk asks if you want the receipt, and you don’t need it, don’tg get one,” said Pierce. “You would be shocked at the amount of receipts I find and pick up. If you don’t need a single use bag for one little box of something you bought, don’t get a bag.”
Some people may take the easy road when it comes to getting rid of their trash, but think about this.
“I think they should be more responsible and consider other people,” said Jackson. “How would you like someone to come into your neighborhood and do you like that? You wouldn’t like it, so be considerate of other people.”
It doesn’t matter if you’re here to stay... or leaving soon.
“Love where you live,” said Womack. “I don’t care if you live in an area that is rich in mountains and lakes and streams, or you live in a desert that is rich in oil and gas with really great people, you should take care of where you live.”
If we don’t want to live with litter...
“We’ve got a lot of work to do, you know? And we need help,” said Pierce. “We need people to help with this. So, get involved, get out here, and help us pick this litter up."