Monday, November 18, 2013

Gross out: Potty bombs on the rise

Dustin Terpening, communication manager, Bellingham Field Office

Two thumbs down for nasty potty bombs and their stench.
I have to admit that on the rare occasion while driving I have seriously considered relieving myself in a plastic bottle. Like when I’ve been stuck in traffic or on a long road trip and a restroom just wasn’t readily available.

Yet, I’ve never been able to bring myself to do it. Logistically, it’s a difficult task to pull off cleanly. For me, there’s just too much risk involved.

What’s amazing to me, though, is just how many people do choose a plastic container over a restroom while driving.

Case in point: There’s an exit off I-90 where potty bombs are particularly prolific. Exit 47, westbound, to be specific, as you come down off Snoqualmie Pass, towards Seattle.

What is a potty bomb?

Potty bomb: any kind of container filled with pee or poop and tossed to the side of the highway.

Gross, right?

During one recent visit to the exit, Peter Christiansen with Ecology said he found approximately 50 fresh puddles and 75 bottles.

“The puddles were likely from truckers emptying their bottles to prepare for continued use,” he said.

“And they all were fresh,” Peter added. “The ammonia smell (or you could just say stench) rising from the pavement was an insult to the nostrils. It just about knocks you backwards.”

Peter says he counted more than 100 trucks swinging through the exit in the 90 minutes he was there. What’s interesting, though, is that more than three quarters of those trucks never stopped when they saw him there with his truck, crew and flashing yellow lights.

“They got off and then right back on,” he said. “Why would they do that? Why exit but then never stop?”

Peter believes they intended to toss a potty bomb. But they didn’t want to get caught. So they kept going.

“Many truckers don’t even stop when they exit,” Peter explained. “They’re slowing down just enough to toss a bottle out the window and keep going. What’s strange is that most of the bottles, at this exit, end up on the right side of the ramp.”

“Think about that for a second,” Peter said. “The driver’s seat is on the left side of the vehicle, but the bottles are on the right side of the ramp. Are truckers really tossing their business out the passenger window? I sure hope they’re a good shot. What happens if they miss? Splashback?”

Why this exit?

“We believe it’s because it’s a pretty easy exit to get on and off,” Peter answers. “It’s isolated and quiet. Truckers can slow down just long enough to toss their business out the window and then get right back on the highway. It costs them very little in time, and that is the major reason we think truckers do what they do. Not excusing it, but time is money.”

This isn't the only exit

This isn’t the only place where we find potty bombs. They’re most commonly found at truck weigh stations, exit ramps with truck stops, and chain-up areas.

A litter pick-up crew in King County found 73 bottles at one time at the northbound I-5 weigh station off exit 141. An Eastern Washington litter crew once found a spot with more than 200 bottles.

On a recent trip down I-5, Peter said he saw an estimated 100 plastic bottles scattered along the entrance to I-5 from the weigh station in Federal Way. Even at 60 mph the bottles were highly visible. Peter calls it an example of truckers stopping to get their trucks weighed, but not getting out to get rid of their “load.”

Tens of thousands of potty bombs

Peter believes it’s a safe estimate that tens of thousands of potty bombs fly onto Washington’s roadsides each year. Compared to the overall amount of litter, that’s not significant. But ask our crews and other people like adopt-a-highway volunteers: It’s probably some of the nastiest litter out there.

Potty bombs:
Poop bucket and pee bottle.
“Can you imagine finding a bucket of poop along the highway?” Peter exclaims. “Talk about disgusting. And, yes, we find buckets half full of poop.”

“At the I-90 exit, we’ve found a lawn chair with hole cut out of the seat,” Peter said. “I guess that would make it easier to do your business. It was probably left behind from a hunter’s camp… but still, bleh.”

“Here’s the real kicker: The problem seems to have grown exponentially,” Peter said. “While we don’t have empirical data to back up that statement, we can tell you anecdotally it’s gotten substantially worse since 2004.”

Litter funding is down

Unfortunately, there is no money for litter prevention or enforcement. Ecology used to do both. Litter pickup funding is down more than 40 percent.

Just in case you were wondering, Exit 47 is only 7 miles from a truck stop, complete with all conveniences. Need we say? Including restrooms.

Thank you litter crews

I’d like to take a moment to thank all the crews who shouldn’t have to pick up this nasty litter, but are out there helping keeping our highways clean: Adopt a Highway volunteers, Washington State Department of Transportation, Washington State Department of Corrections, and our own Ecology crews.

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