|Megan Warfield is dedicated to keeping Washington state trucker-bomb free.
With a nickname like “litter queen,” Megan Thomas Warfield ’89 has to have a sense of humor about her occupation. “It could be worse,” says the environmental specialist for the Washington State Department of Ecology. “I could be the pee lady!” This refers to one of Warfield’s main concerns, which has garnered her national attention—trucker bombs.
While nonexplosive, these bombs are a major nuisance—a result of motorists, mainly truckers, who, rather than stop at a rest area, remain in their vehicles and relieve themselves in containers, which they toss out the window. Trucker bombs are one form of litter that her department’s “Litter and It Will Hurt” campaign sought to eliminate.
In 2001, Phase I of the multipronged litter campaign commenced. It was structured around a study conducted in 2000, which determined the quantity and forms of litter in Washington. There were “bottles of urine everywhere,” Warfield says. To bring this little-known problem to the public, she designed a poster with a plastic milk jug half-full of urine and the tagline: “Okay, one last time: This is not a urinal.”
“Because it’s so gross, the media latches on,” Warfield explains. Since the start of the campaign, she has appeared on National Public Radio, MSNBC, CNN, The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, The Rush Limbaugh Show and local-news programs.
Keeping pace with some of the paragons of popular culture wasn’t a stretch for this former American-studies major. Her degree has proven useful, but Warfield would have majored in environmental studies had it been an option in the 1980s.
“I realized what I wanted to do while at Dickinson,” she recalls, “especially from my environmental classes with Candie Wilderman and my first experience in the field when I volunteered for the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay.”
Warfield relocated to the Northwest, earning a master’s in environmental studies from Evergreen State College. An internship at the Washington State Office of Marine Safety turned into her first job. She moved to the Department of Ecology and has been statewide litter-programs coordinator for eight years.
“There’s a lot more to litter than just bottles and cans,” Warfield has discovered.
Since enforcement is a huge part of prevention, one focus of the litter campaign was enlisting the state police.
“The police were a tough nut to crack,” Warfield admits. “It’s hard to convince a cop that writing a ticket for littering is worth his while. I learned to become very persuasive. It’s about creating a win-win situation.”
She did this by revealing that 25,000 car accidents per year are caused by litterbugs. This includes people who intentionally throw things from car windows and drivers who don’t secure the loads in the backs of their pickup trucks, ejecting everything from refrigerators to lumber to cardboard boxes.
A dangerous example of an unsecured load occurred in 2003 when an entertainment center crashed through the windshield of Maria Federici’s car, blinding and severely disfiguring her. Federici’s mother, Robin Abel, became a crusader for Warfield’s cause, and the educational video they created became one of the most gratifying projects of Warfield’s career.
A controversial prong of the campaign is its 24-hour hotline, which logs more than 1,000 calls per month. It is “effective, but creates a lot of heartburn,” Warfield says.
Here’s how it works: If you witness someone illegally disposing of garbage, you call the hotline and give the license-plate number or other relevant details of the incident. Once identified, the litterbug receives a warning letter in the mail, letting him or her know the offense and that next time there will be a fine.
“A lot of people call in saying, ‘It wasn’t me!’ ” Warfield’s response is, “Whether it was you or not, I’ve just raised your awareness of the program.”
Additional aspects of the campaign included humorous anti-litter radio and television commercials, roadway and retail signs, a Web site and increased distribution of car litterbags and other promotional materials. Since the study showed that males, ages 16-35, make up most of the state’s litterbug population, taglines such as “Litter fines mean less beer money,” and “The fine for littering is $103. That’s a lot of corn dogs,” dominated these media.
While some elements, such as the hotline, still are operational, the campaign officially ended in June 2004. Warfield is drafting a proposal to restart the campaign later this year.
Post-campaign research shows a 24-percent reduction in litter on Washington roads. The true test will be in 2009 when a new study reveals if the trend has continued.
Beyond the campaign, Warfield manages the statewide budget for litter programs. “I have my finger on the pulse of what’s going on in almost every county in the state,” she says.
But the most gratifying thing is knowing that she makes a difference. “Litter is a 100-percent preventable problem,” she says.
For more information on the campaign, visit: www.ecy.wa.gov/programs/swfa/litter.