MERCED — A plastic bag tossed about in the wind, a discarded soda bottle rolling down the road, a pile of cigarette butts discarded on a street corner.
Some residents may not think twice about such sights in Merced, but the cost of keeping trash out of the waterways has landed the city near the top of an environmental study.
The report, released last week by the Natural Resources Defense Council, looked at the costs of keeping plastic and other trash off the streets of 95 California communities.
Merced made the top 10, ranking eighth on the list for the city's annual cleanup costs. The city spent $2.3 million last year on efforts such as street sweeping, litter pickup and waterway cleanup.
Merced outspent Redondo Beach and South Gate, according to the study.
At the top of the spending list was Los Angeles with more than $36 million, San Diego with about $14 million and Long Beach with $13 million. Other cities in the top 10 were San Jose, Oakland, Sacramento and Hayward.
Overall, the communities spent $428 million a year, the study found.
According to the study, Merced paid about $29.13 per person in cleanup costs, ranking it fourth in that category.
Darby Hoover, senior resource specialist at Natural Resources Defense Council, said the 95 communities were ranked based on six criteria: waterway and beach cleanup, street sweeping, installation of storm water capture devices, storm drain cleaning and maintenance, litter cleanup and public education.
The communities surveyed ranged from 700 residents to 4 million, she said.
The group wanted to focus on the consequence of trash, especially plastic waste, on waterways and oceans.
"Despite all these great efforts by our cities, the materials that are getting into the ocean and causing problems are plastic," Hoover said. "Most of those items are food or beverage takeout packaging, like bags, bottles or straws."
Michael Wegley, Merced Public Works director of water resources, said reducing the city's cleanup costs begins with eliminating the pollution at the source.
"I think it's a matter of getting the trash in the garbage cans and the recyclables in the right bins, instead of pushing it down the street and making it someone else's problem," Wegley said.
He said he was surprised to see Merced on the study's top 10 list, but said it demonstrates the city's ongoing efforts to reduce litter.
"In a way, it's good because it shows we're making an attempt and doing our part," he said. "But it also shows that it comes at a high cost, and there are other services we could be providing citizens instead of cleaning up behind them."
Wegley said the city relies on residents to do their part, especially since the Public Works Department reduced its staff from 200 people to 150 from 2008 to 2012.
"If you see something, pick it up and put it in the trash can," Wegley said. "If people did their part, we wouldn't have to spend so much on it."
Based on the study's findings, Hoover said the Natural Resources Defense Council proposes legislation to require brand owners of the plastic materials to pay for costs associated with getting rid of them.
"Cities and taxpayers shouldn't be the only ones to bear all the costs that we're talking about in the report," Hoover said. "The producers should pay their fair share."
Reporter Ramona Giwargis can be reached at (209) 385-2477 or firstname.lastname@example.org.