Societal Cost of Litter is Largely Hidden

By DAVE FISHER/ecoRI News staff

There is a problem in the United States that, despite a 61 percent decrease in the past 40 years, still costs taxpayers and businesses about $11 billion annually. It has nothing to do with taxes and regulation, though a bit more enforcement of existing laws seems warranted given the size and scope of the problem.

This problem is easily observed on every highway, street, alley, lot, park, beach, path and shoreline in the world, but receives little scrutiny from lawmakers and law enforcement. This problem, at best, is a public nuisance and quality-of-life issue, and, at worst, a public safety hazard.

Guessed it yet? We’re talking about litter. In 2009, the nonprofit Keep America Beautiful (KAB) published a study of littering habits and an assessment of the cost of litter to taxpayers. Behavioral studies were performed on 10,000 individuals in 130 locations in 10 states. Surveys measured roadway litter in 45 metropolitan areas nationwide, as well as 180 non-roadway sample locations.

Though the report, which estimates a 61 percent reduction of litter during the past four decades, looks encouraging on the surface, KAB’s Great American Cleanup (pdf) still logged 5.7 million volunteer hours collecting 76 million pounds of trash in 2010. If all of that trash were dumped at the Central Landfill in Johnston, at the residential rate of $32 per ton, the tip fee alone would be more than $1.2 million — and Rhode Island's landfill has one of the lowest tip fees in the country.

An incomplete picture
While the study was exhaustive, it drew a picture that is far from complete. Eleven billion dollars a year is a lot of money, and calling the estimate conservative is an understatement. KAB’s report didn’t consider the indirect costs such as decreased property values, decreased commerce and tourism in blighted areas, and the health effects and related costs of littered environments.

The study concluded that at least 51.2 billion pieces of litter are left on roadways in the United States annually — an average of 6,729 pieces of litter per mile. That's more than one piece of litter per linear foot of roadway. The 2010 Great American Cleanup tidied a mere 124,000 miles of the more than 5.5 million miles of roadway in the country — 6,729 times 5.5 million equals an almost sickening 37 billion-plus pieces of litter.

That's 100 pieces of garbage on the road for every man, woman and child in the country.

The study also found that cigarette butts comprise the largest share of litter, at 38 percent. Somewhat ironically, the Philip Morris USA tobacco company funded the 2009 study. The annual International Coastal Cleanup (pdf) cites similar figures for cigarette butts and packaging. The latest Centers for Disease Control (CDC) data show that about 20 percent of the U.S. population smokes cigarettes. This means that a large portion of the waste found on our streets and in our watersheds is attributable to one industry and a minority that is shrinking due to death and better choices.

Plastic bottles are becoming an extremely large waste problem. Americans are drinking fewer soft drinks, but rocketing sales of bottled water have closed and surpassed that gap. It’s estimated that Americans throw out 2.5 million plastic bottles every hour. The 266 million bottles picked up during KAB's 2010 Great American Cleanup were accumulated in about five days.

Litters impact on public safety is even harder to quantify accurately. It’s difficult to say how many traffic accidents and home floodings are due to storm drains clogged with litter and other debris. A significant part of the operating costs of storm and wastewater treatment facilities and public works departments nationwide is the removal of trash and debris from catch basins.

Road sand, leaves, and discarded bottles, bags and boxes can contribute to localized flooding in urban areas. In old cities such as Providence, trash in the stormwater adds another stressor to an already-ailing infrastructure. Litter even has a cost to the clean-energy sector. Owners of the Thundermist hydroelectric plant in Woonsocket claim that 90 percent of the plant's operating cost is spent removing trash from the sluice that feeds the turbine.

Who litters and why?
Behavioral observations in the 2009 study showed that 81 percent of all instances of littering were committed “with intent” by the individual, and were mainly attributable to lack of awareness or sense of obligation. Of all observed disposals, 17 percent were deemed improper — i.e. littering — and people older than 30 littered less than younger individuals. Gender wasn't related to litter rates.

The study also found that litter begets litter. The strongest contextual contributor to littering is the prevalence of existing litter. The number of trash receptacles and distance between them also was a major contextual contributor to instances of littering and amounts of litter, according to the study.

What does this mean for Rhode Island?
The monetary costs of litter to our state aren't easily assessed. Countless advocacy and volunteer groups statewide perform thousands of hours of work year-round. Most of these cleanups are performed by volunteers with supplies and equipment that have been donated.

Last year, cleanups performed by Save The Bay, the Rhode Island Audubon Society and the minimum security prison work crews that you see picking up litter on our highways utilized nearly 15,000 people. If each of those people worked for three hours at a rate of $10 an hour, the labor alone would cost $450,000.

The Boy Scouts of America-Narragansett Council logged nearly 4,000 volunteer hours performing cleanups in Rhode Island last year. That’s another $40,000. Inmates on work crews make a paltry $3 a day, amounting to a total of about $22,000 paid out by the Department of Corrections. Supervisors of these clean-up crews, however, make significantly more.

Costs related to litter can add up quickly, but few are paying attention because, for the most part, the problem is addressed by volunteers, so any associated labor costs to the taxpayer are hidden, marginalized or non-existent.

This perceived lack of cost to the taxpayer is a likely contributor to the lax enforcement of our state’s littering laws. In the past five years, only 714 citations for littering have been logged by the Rhode Island Traffic Tribunal. Only 34 citations were issued by state Department of Environmental Protection officers. Those 714 tickets theoretically generated, at the minimum fine of $85, $60,000 of income for the state. One wonders if that money even covers the cost of the littering law signs on our highways?

In comparison, Rhode Island police issue about 90,000 speeding tickets annually, which, at a minimum fine per offense of $85, would generate at least $7.7 million for the state.

What can be done?
KAB’s 2009 report made several conclusions and recommendations including:

• Education and cleanups work. Clearly, intense education and cleanup efforts have been the primary contributors to the significant decrease in litter during the past 40 years.

• More receptacles work. Distance to receptacles is a strong predictor of littering behavior.

• More recycling infrastructure is needed. Only 12 percent of public spaces surveyed had recycling receptacles.

    • Funding is needed. Corporations, foundations and government should all be taking the lead in funding/sponsoring education programs, volunteer programs and infrastructure. As with most societal issues, prevention is far less costly than remediation.

    One may notice the lack of any recommendations regarding the responsibility of the companies that make the products that litter our streets and neighborhoods. This seems odd until you take into account the funders of the annual cleanups include many of the companies whose products contribute to the littering problem in the first place. Sponsors of the 2010 Great American Cleanup included PepsiCo Inc., Coca-Cola Bottling Co., Philip Morris USA, Nestle Bottled Water Co., Dow Chemical, Anheuser-Busch, the Solo Cup Co. and the American Chemistry Council.

    Fortunately, many states, including Rhode Island, are exploring extended producer responsibility laws in an attempt to push manufacturers into making more economically and environmentally sound products and packaging, and to encourage takeback programs, particularly for products for which proper disposal is costly or difficult.

    A bit more enforcement of current laws could also go a long way to choking off the flow of litter. This follows the “speed trap” mentality. If you know that a particular stretch of road is frequented by police looking for speeders, you slow down. If you know a particular community is hard-nosed about litter law enforcement, you’ll think twice about littering in that community.

    Even with enhanced enforcement and enactment of producer responsibility statutes, the choice to litter is still in the consumer’s hands. Litter is costly on many levels and an ounce of prevention is worth 76 million pounds of cure.