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Changing Pennsylvania’s Littering Behavior

Litter along a road in Pennsylvania Pennsylvania has a littering habit.  Pennsylvania is home to bountiful natural resources, beautiful landscapes, and appealing communities. Many Pennsylvanians and out-of-state friends enjoy picnics and sports at our community parks, cultural sightseeing in our towns and cities, hiking and boating in our state parks, touring the countryside, and many other activities. 

Yet we’ve all seen trashed-out locations around the state. It may be cigarette butts, plastic food packaging, or bottles or cans that were tossed to the ground or left behind after an outing. It may be a heap of illegally dumped tires or large household items.  Litter also results from overflowing trash cans or improperly secured truck loads.  Littering is happening in  Pennsylvania’s rural, suburban, and urban areas.

It’s costing us. No one likes to go to their favorite place when it’s littered, and few people want to spend a Saturday picking up trash in their neighborhood. Litter undercuts our quality of life and the health of our waters and soil. 

It robs us of community improvements and economic development, too. Significant taxpayer dollars and other funds are directed to trash cleanup that could otherwise be spent more beneficially, such as on improving our roads. 

SecMcDonnellLitterCleanup.jfifEach spring, the state Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) and Department of Transportation (PennDOT) support the Pick Up Pennsylvania campaign coordinated by Keep Pennsylvania Beautiful, the state affiliate of Keep America Beautiful. Tens of thousands of Pennsylvanians volunteer in these local community projects, removing millions of pounds of trash. Each fall, many Pennsylvanians remove trash from streams, rivers, and lakes in support of the International Coastal Cleanup.

PennDOT funds and coordinates Adopt-a-Highway and other clean-up and roadside beautification programs year-round. City governments, volunteer groups, and companies likewise are spending millions to remove trash in their local communities.  

Despite our collective efforts, trash keeps piling up. 

It’s time for change. DEP, PennDOT, and Keep Pennsylvania Beautiful are coordinating a multi-partner initiative to reduce littering. An action plan will be developed and carried out that, for the first time, is guided by state-specific litter data and a nationally recognized model of behavior change. The initiative has four phases:

Phase 1: Compile Pennsylvania Litter Data

Comprehensive, current state litter data are key to developing strategies, actions, and tools that have the best chance of success in reducing littering in Pennsylvania.

The 2018-2019 Pennsylvania Litter Research Study

DEP, PennDOT, and Keep Pennsylvania Beautiful recently partnered to obtain the first litter data in Pennsylvania in more than two decades. Consultants Burns & McDonnell were hired  to document (a) the quantity, composition, and sources of litter and (b) attitudes toward litter and littering. Using new methodology developed by Keep America Beautiful (KAB), they conducted on-the-ground litter counts in 180 locations and a phone survey of 500 residents statewide.

Key Findings:

  • There are an estimated 502 million pieces of litter on Pennsylvania’s roads.
  • The most common items are cigarette butts (37 percent) and plastics (30 percent), such as food packaging, bottles, and bags.
  • Local roads have an average of about 1,030 litter items per mile.
  • About 83 percent of phone survey respondents said they see educational messaging focused on litter prevention only occasionally or rarely. 
  • About 76 percent said littering reduces property values, negatively affects tourism and business, raises taxes due to clean-up, ends up in waterways, and is an environmental problem. 
  • About half of respondents said people litter because they don’t care or there’s no conveniently placed trash can.

For more findings, see the complete Pennsylvania Litter Research Study Report.

The Cost of Litter and Illegal Dumping in Pennsylvania: A Study of Nine Cities

Keep Pennsylvania Beautiful commissioned Burns & McDonnell in 2019 to survey nine cities on the money they spend to manage litter and illegal dumping. Participating cities included: Allentown, Altoona, Erie, Harrisburg, Lancaster, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Reading, and Scranton.

Key Findings

  • The cites collectively spend over $68 million/year on prevention, education, cleanup, and enforcement to address litter and illegal dumping.
  • Eighty percent of these costs go toward cleanup. 

For more findings, see the complete report, The Cost of Litter and Illegal Dumping in Pennsylvania: A Study of Nine Cities Across the State, on the Keep Pennsylvania Beautiful website.

Litter Summit: Community Leaders’ Views

Keep Pennsylvania Beautiful, in coordination with DEP and PennDOT, hosted the first Pennsylvania Litter Summit on November 14, 2019, in Harrisburg.  Over 120 state and local government, community, and business leaders discussed the impacts of litter and illegal dumping in Pennsylvania and shared their views on what should be done to end it. 

People attend the PA Litter Summit

Phase 2: Develop an Action Plan 

DEP, PennDOT, and Keep Pennsylvania Beautiful are forming workgroups of leaders from state and local government, industry, and community organizations to develop Pennsylvania’s first statewide action plan to prevent littering. The workgroups will meet throughout early summer, and the plan will be published later in 2021.

Using recommendations in the Pennsylvania Litter Research Study as a starting point, the workgroups will determine strategies and actions that best address Pennsylvania’s littering problem.

  • The Litter Education and Outreach Workgroup will develop recommendations for a statewide education campaign.
  • The Infrastructure Workgroup will identify ways to ensure that communities have the necessary infrastructure in place, such as optimally located trash cans and waste management services, to reduce littering and illegal dumping.
  • The Litter Regulations and Enforcement Workgroup will work with partnering enforcement agencies to evaluate the effectiveness of current laws and ordinances and identify possible regulatory and enforcement updates.
  • The Partnerships Workgroup will consider ways that businesses and industry leaders can help to reduce litter across the state.

The litter action plan will be informed by Keep America Beautiful’s approach to littering prevention, which is based on social psychologist Wes Schulz’s nationally recognized model of behavior change:


Phase 3: Launch the Action Plan 

Pennsylvania state agencies will commit to carrying out the littering action plan statewide.

Phase 4: Evaluate Progress

After the action plan is underway, we’ll review the state’s progress toward reducing littering.