What Does it Mean to Adopt a Highway?

Jane Marsh - February 14, 2023

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What Does it Mean to Adopt a Highway?

You’ve seen them on the highway — a sign with a business or organization’s name with a caption saying “adopt a highway.” These signs have become ubiquitous to the average driver. If someone adopts a highway, what responsibilities do they have to that section of the road? Other questions, such as the environmental benefits, the costs, and the process, linger since the signs could clarify these intricacies.  

The History of Adopt a Highway

The Adopt-a-Highway (AAH) program began in the United States in the 1980s in response to litter. A driver in Texas saw trash fly off a vehicle, which started the initiative. Now, companies in almost every state, and even more countries worldwide, can reach out to their local organization to get a sign on the roadway in exchange for semi-regular roadway cleanings.

Over the years, companies have adopted highways for free advertising. Seeing a company name on an AAH sign signaled to drivers that a company cares about the environment and their local area. Many see the signs as a valuable asset since they’re cheaper than more traditional forms of advertising. Though driving past a sign someone sees for a second may seem meaningless, that passive activity matters to companies sometimes more than billboards.

Historically, every type of business, organization, and individual has tried to get an AAH sign with their name on it. It’s become so popular that television staples like Seinfeld and The Simpsons have made episodes about AAH. 

Unfortunately, a popular program like this comes with legal battles too.

Various areas in the United States, including Minnesota and Georgia, have had lawsuits arise from their AAH programs because of branches of the Ku Klux Klan trying to obtain signage. The Supreme Court had to get involved in determining their eligibility. Ultimately, most states now have strict guidelines about what can go on signage, eliminating terms and names that would incite or promote illegal or discriminatory beliefs.

Nowadays, the program receives mostly positive reception with little controversy, saving states millions of dollars yearly in roadway cleanup initiatives. It allows departments of transportation to allocate more funds to roadway repairs, making driving safer for all citizens. AAH programs have inspired related programs, like adopting rural roads or keeping states beautiful programs, which follow similar guidelines.

The Commitment Specifics

Every business obtaining a sign agrees to keep their section of road free of litter, usually at least four cleanup projects yearly. Variations of adopting a highway, including sponsoring a highway, delegate cleaning responsibilities. 

Most AAH programs don’t require payment unless the organization or individual hires cleaning contractors instead of sending volunteers. In this case, local chapters will provide quotes depending on their rules — usually a monthly fee. Both options are viable, especially if a company chooses a high-traffic highway and wants to keep its workers safe.

Each program has its specific guidelines. However, most want to avoid residential areas — as landowners or HOAs should maintain responsibility for those roads — or places that wouldn’t be safe for civilians to clean, such as windy and hilly areas with low visibility. 

AAH programs want to open eligibility for as many entities as possible, that includes a single citizen. The program will provide training, vests, signage, and trash bags for cleaning crews to promote safety. 

Commitments usually range from one to two years at one to three-mile stretches per commitment. Applicants can adopt multiple stretches, but it usually requires separate processes for each stretch. 

After each cleanup, teams must report their activity to their local organization to ensure they keep updated records of activity. Not adhering to the guidelines closely could result in sign removal.

The Environmental Impact

Making a democratized program like this ensures as many caring citizens participate as possible, monitoring over 44,000 miles and over 1.4 million pounds of trash yearly. It reminds humans how important it is to obtain environmental progress through community-based efforts. It will not be the wins of a few, but a joint collaboration between individuals and organizations is necessary for true achievement.

The AAH or Sponsor-a-Highway programs — and other international variations — strive to eliminate litter from roadways. With all of the other eco-friendly roadway initiatives attempting to find success, it’s helpful to have a variety of objectives to encapsulate as many environmental subject areas as possible, regardless of success. 

Volunteers sequestering this trash prevents it from getting into waterways and other habitats, polluting more than highways. It also helps all wildlife from consuming or being tainted by toxic materials in the litter that could stunt growth or harm health in worse ways.

Some programs encourage more than just trash collection as a part of their AAH program. They could also include:

  • Recycling
  • Graffiti removal
  • Vegetation control
  • Tree and wildflower planting
  • Other beautification efforts 

Keeping roadways clear could change drivers’ mindsets over time. Have you ever seen trash or debris on the side of the road and had a slight twinge of disgust? These feelings should inspire, much like it did the original creator of the program. 

People could feel more discouraged from intentionally littering as they drive through beautiful areas. Little thoughts like this are monumental in catalyzing other environmentalist behaviors and thoughts, which can lead to positive climate action. The weight of this decision not to litter and preserve nature may feel more burdensome if they can visualize how much their trash would disrupt the cleanliness of natural scenery.

Adopting a Highway to Solve the Litter Problem

Adopting a highway isn’t the one-and-only solution to solving the world’s litter problem. However, it is a step in the right direction. The program highlights how more organizations can assist the trash crisis and how organizations can incentivize others to participate — through passive advertising. 

Though an ideal, sustainable planet wouldn’t have to worry about roadside litter, the AAH program mitigates some of the carelessness in some drivers today. As people pick up more trash, hopefully, more will be recycled, and fewer people will dispose of their waste on roadways.

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About the author

Jane Marsh

Starting from an early age, Jane Marsh loved all animals and became a budding environmentalist. Now, Jane works as the Editor-in-Chief of where she covers topics related to climate policy, renewable energy, the food industry, and more.