David Lipman, an employee with the Southampton Town Litter Crew, collected 37,800 pounds of trash in 2023, a personal record. “I focus on smaller items, what’s thrown out or blown out of car windows,” he said. Perhaps unfortunately for him, he doesn’t get paid by the pound.
“I’ve picked up everything from concrete blocks to car parts. Bottles, packages, containers, packaging in general, that’s what I find the most,” he said, although once he found the entire front end of a car. “I don’t touch anything that had a heartbeat.” (Dead animals fall under the purview of the Highway Department.)
“It’s kind of a game for him,” said Ryan Murphy, the head of code enforcement for Southampton Town, “but we wish it would stop.”
Mr. Lipman’s job was created during Covid, in response to the scattered personal protective equipment, masks and whatnot, an unforeseen consequence of the pandemic. He was kept on when the town realized that the litter problem persisted beyond Covid times. “It’s incredibly disturbing that he picks up so much stuff,” said Mr. Murphy.
But there are other types of trash too. For example, the signs advertising tutors, nannies, soccer camps, or ironically, junk removal, that are placed along roadways, which, Mr. Murphy says, are a “distractibility and visibility issue too.” During the summer season, a teak furniture pop-up plasters the entire East End with its green and white signs. Both East Hampton and Southampton Town recognize these signs, and the many others like them, as litter. Mr. Murphy said the town will issue summonses (fines start at $200), but it will typically call the violator first. “I tell them, ‘I passed 20 of your signs today. Either you get them out, or I take them out and you get a summons.’ “ He said the litter crew will go on “surges” and remove them all. “Once I had a guy remove 70 in one day. I don’t know what they’re paying, but if we throw away 30 and they cost $5 a piece, that business just lost $150.”
Kevin Cooper, director of code enforcement for East Hampton Town, pulls an average of 600 roadside signs a year. “They put them where anyone can stop for a second, at Stephen Hand’s Path where it meets Cedar Street, or going out to Montauk on the stretch.” You would think that it would be easy to enforce fines, since the signs have the name and number of a business printed on them, but Mr. Cooper said to enforce a littering fine, his team must “personally observe the person doing the littering.” Many of the companies that advertise don’t place the signs themselves; they hire people who generally do the job in the dark of night.
Certain areas seem to attract different sorts of trash. Along Middle Highway, Mr. Cooper said landscapers were dumping leaves and grass, and he had to ask the town board to install signs, which helped. In true hotspots, he said, “I’ll put someone in the vicinity and that usually takes care of it.”
But what if trash is dumped between jurisdictions and in the middle of the woods? That’s the issue for one decades-old trash hotspot on Town Line Road, just south of Sag Harbor Village, north of Wainscott, and right on the line between East Hampton and Southampton Towns. “I’ve driven this road lots of times,” Andrew Gaites, the principal environmental analyst for East Hampton, said one recent morning as his pickup truck jounced through potholes deep enough to drown in. “There’s always trash. There’s always dumping.” He had two simple categories for trash. “Party litter,” like beer cans and food wrappers, and “big dumping”: furniture-size junk. Town Line Road is famous for big dumping, and Mr. Gaites observed enough that day to fill more than a 10-yard dumpster: televisions, a couch, and appliances all in a pile, collected ironically between two open expanses of woods. Many were burned and pockmarked with bullet holes.
“There used to be cars dumped along here,” he said. “They make huge bonfires over there,” he said, pointing to a charred area on the East Hampton Town side of the road. “They shoot everything up. You find casings. It’s a play spot.”
Most weeks, the police get calls about illegal dumping. In December, Brian LaBelle, a harbormaster, noted multiple bedframes, an armchair, and a bin full of empty beer cans in a nature preserve along Gerard Drive. He asked the police to monitor the area. But, as Mr. Cooper said, if a litterer is not caught in the act, it’s hard to enforce the law.
The Marina Lane Preserve off of Three Mile Harbor Road and the Cathy Lester, or Soak Hides, Preserve, are also trash hotspots. Mr. Gaites believes they’re popular with dumpers because they can easily pull in and not be caught in the act. They’re also close to the town recycling center on Springs-Fireplace Road. “If someone goes on a Wednesday when it’s closed, or they get there and decide it’s too expensive to dump legally, I think those places are convenient spots to offload stuff.”
Christine Ganitsch is chairwoman of the East Hampton Town Litter Action Committee, formed by town resolution just last year. She said that a lot of litter ends up on major road arteries simply because trucks aren’t securing their loads. But a lot gets tossed out of car windows, and that’s harder to combat and understand. She hopes effective awareness campaigns will eventually change behavior, while acknowledging that “changing behavior is the world’s hardest thing to do.”
Back to Mr. Lipman, who said his wife doesn’t like taking car trips with him anymore. “I used to look at houses or notice the landscape. Now I’m looking at all the litter. I’ve become a little obsessed.”