This trash was spotted along U.S. 421 north of Sanford, but litter is piling up along the side of the road in many parts of the county.

At the start of the pandemic in early 2020, it was probably an unlikely thought that restrictions caused by the virus would lead to a lot more trash on the side of the road.

Local government has in the past contracted with the Sanford Correctional Center’s work release program, which allows for inmates to pick up litter. But like so many other things, COVID-19 led to the suspension of the program due to concerns about keeping prisoners in close quarters to and from job sites.

The results, predictably, can be seen along the side of nearly any major road in the area.

Now, the city of Sanford has entered into a partnership with a Greensboro company to get the problem back under control.

R.A.C.O. Artsee Expression began collecting trash on Feb. 8, and within little over a week had already gathered 1,840 pounds, according to a press release from the city.

“Sanford City Council diverted funding from other projects to make this concerted effort to clean up our streets after the increase in littering during the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Sanford Mayor Chet Mann. “Council doesn’t understand or condone people throwing out trash on our streets, and wants to keep our City presentable and healthy for our residents. We hope it has a lasting effect.”

Meanwhile, at the county level, Captain Brian Estes of the Lee County Sheriff’s Office said he’s looking at ways to safely give opportunities to inmates at the county jail – separate from the SCC, which houses those convicted of crimes from across the state versus those who have been charged locally and are awaiting trial — to help with roadside cleanup.

“I spoke with someone from the Moore County Sheriff’s Office about a program they’re doing there, and I don’t know what it would look like yet, but that’s something I’m interested in doing with our inmates,” Estes said. “I think those guys would look forward to getting out there and doing something like that.”

Finally, litter isn’t just unsightly. It also poses a threat to local wildlife. That’s according to Byron Wortham, who runs Holly’s Nest, a local animal rescue that rehabilitates animals ranging from squirrels and deer to hawks and owls. Wortham and his team have recently released multiple rehabilitated birds back into the wild.

“Probably 90 percent of the birds we rescue are due to something humans have done, whether it’s hitting them with a car or a window or something else,” Wortham said. “But for the last six months or so, trash has been the number one thing. When you throw a fast food wrapper out of the window, the mice are attracted. And then the owls come down to get the mice, and bam – they get hit by a car coming around the bend.”

Wortham said other animals are at risk too.

“If a dog is on the side of the road eating something, or even a deer, and you come around the corner and hit it, then you’ve killed someone’s pet and maybe gotten into an accident,” he said. “So you should keep your trash in the car and dispose of it properly when you get home.”