Litter is misplaced, improperly handled waste. During a three year study, Keep America Beautiful found that people who litter do so for one of three reasons: 1) they feel no sense of ownership for the property, 2) believe that someone else will clean up after them, or 3) litter has already accumulated. The act of littering can be accidental, such as when a piece of paper blows out a car window, or it can be a deliberate action. In either case sources of litter include: Pedestrians, Motorists, Trucks hauling unsecured loads, Commercial refuse sources (such as dumpsters), Construction/demolition sites, Household trash cans invaded by scavengers or knocked over by the wind, or Entertainment Events such as fairs and concerts
By knowing these possible sources of litter, preventative steps can be taken to reduce the number of littering incidents.
Tips for Preventing Litter
- Set an example by not littering. Carry a trash bag in your car or put trash in your pocket until you find a container.
- Pick up one piece of litter each day, or become involved with a cleanup event. If an area is already littered, people are more likely to add to it. People think twice before littering in areas where there is no visible litter. See Cleanup Resources for more details
- Plant and maintain flowers along a curb or sidewalk. People are less likely to litter in areas that are beautified.
- Make sure your outside garbage/recycling bins have lids or are secured in such a way that the wind cannot knock them over, scattering the trash.
- Ask business owners to check their dumpsters every day to make sure tops and side doors are closed. Review the Guide to Reducing Litter, Managing Trash, and Recycling for Convenience Stores for instituting a more detailed program.
- Provide sufficient trash and recycling receptacles at events such as fair, concerts, and even family picnics.
Littering and the Law
Under law, PennDOT is required to include the following statement on the Pennsylvania Vehicle Registration to remind motorist of littering laws. By signing your registration credentials, you acknowledge that you have received notice of the provision.
“Section 3709 of the Pennsylvania Vehicle Code provides for a fine of up to $300 for dropping, throwing or depositing, upon any highway, or upon any other public or private property without the consent of the owner thereof or into or on the waters of the Commonwealth from a vehicle, any waste paper, sweepings, ashes, household waste, glass, metal, refuse or rubbish or any dangerous or detrimental substance or permitting any of the preceding without immediately removing such items or causing their removal.
For any violation of Section 3709, you may be subject to a fine of up to $300 upon conviction, including any violation resulting from the conduct of any other persons operating, in possession of or present within the vehicle with your permission, if you do not with reasonable certainty identify the driver of the vehicle at the time the violation occurred.”
Impacts of Littering
Wind, water, traffic, and animals carry litter in all directions, harming wildlife, ruining the beauty of natural areas and neighborhoods, and negatively impacting human health and the economy.
Animals can become tangled in litter, such as plastic 6-pack rings, plastic bags, fishing line and even jars and cans. This can prevent or limit mobility, and at times stunt the animal’s growth. Animals that eat litter can become very sick or even die. While trying to swallow litter such as plastic bags, bottle caps, pens and straws, they can choke on the material. If successfully swallowed, the material does not break down. The animals’ stomachs can fill up with plastic, leaving little room for food. Even food waste along roadways is considered litter and can be detrimental. Food thrown from vehicles attracts animals to roads, where they can cause car accidents and damage to vehicles, and where the animal is often maimed or killed.
Besides harming wildlife, litter negatively impacts our health and our wallets. Unsightly litter can deter people from visiting natural areas such as parks, lakes and hiking trials and detracts from the experience of those who do choose to visit. While riding a bike, playing in a park, or walking barefoot along a creek, a person can get cut on littered broken glass or rusty metal. The resulting injury could require stitches and cause a person to need a tetanus shot. We must also be aware that litter attracts rats, mosquitoes and other vectors that carry disease. Litter within a city or neighborhood can reduce property values and can be especially detrimental to tourism. Community clean-up efforts, be it of an abandoned alley or the aftermath of a fair or concert, can be very costly.
Cigarette Litter and the Environment
Tobacco products, including cigarette butts, are the most-littered item in America, representing nearly 38 percent of all items, according to “Litter in America,” the Keep America Beautiful landmark 2009 study of litter and littering behavior. This research also showed that individuals who would never litter items such as beverage cans or paper packaging may not consider tossing cigarette butts on the ground “littering”.
Cigarette butt litter creates blight. It accumulates in gutters, and outside doorways and bus shelters. It’s the number one most littered item anywhere. Increasing amounts of litter in a business district, along riverfronts, or recreation areas create a sense that no one cares, leading to more community disorder and crime.
Cigarette butts don’t disappear. About 95% of cigarette filters are composed of cellulose acetate, a form of plastic which does not quickly degrade and can persist in the environment. Filters are harmful to waterways and wildlife. About 18% of litter, traveling primarily through storm water systems, ends up in local streams, rivers, and waterways. Nearly 80% of marine debris comes from land-based sources. Cigarette butt litter can also pose a hazard to animals and marine life when they mistake filters for food.
The litter in our neighborhoods does not just affect us locally. It is a global problem. During storms, litter is washed down storm drains, and into streams, rivers and ultimately into the ocean. Research estimates that 8 million tons of plastics enter the oceans every year.
This widespread input of plastics into the marine environment can lead to a bioaccumulation of plastic up the food chain. As plastic bags and other plastic litter break down into smaller pieces, they are eaten by aquatic organisms such as small fish. As the plastic is not digestible, its concentrations increase with each step up the food chain. Two smaller fish, each with 4 pieces of plastic in their system are eaten by a larger fish which now has 8 pieces of plastic in its system. This cycle continues up the food chain and could ultimately end up on someone’s dinner plate.
(For more detailed information about the effects of marine litter, research the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, or Midway Atoll.)