Everyone agrees that litter is a disgusting blight on our landscape, caused primarily by irresponsible behavior. Can we defeat this problem?

Keep America Beautiful (KAB), the nation’s largest volunteer-based community action and education organization, has been working with communities to fight litter for some time now, resulting in real progress. KAB reported in 2009 that overall litter has decreased 61% since 1969.

This huge (though not satisfying) improvement is the “result of successful education, ongoing cleanup efforts and changes in packaging.”

KAB notes: “Research and experience prove that litter—intentional or unintentional pollution resulting from consumer waste products being carelessly handled or improperly disposed—attracts more litter. A clean community, by contrast, discourages littering and raises local living standards and quality of life.”

While there is no single source of litter or a single profile of a litterer, KAB has identified seven primary sources of litter:

  • Pedestrians or cyclists who do not use receptacles.
  • Motorists who do not use car ashtrays or litter bags.
  • Business dumpsters that are improperly covered.
  • Loading docks and commercial or recreational marinas with inadequate waste receptacles.
  • Construction and demolition sites without tarps and receptacles to contain debris and waste.
  • Trucks with uncovered loads on local roads and highways.
  • Household trash scattered before or during collection.

What is most litter made of? Litter studies and audits find that tobacco products are the most littered item, followed by paper and then plastic products.

Many wonder whether the plastic foodservice products that we use every day represent a large portion of litter. The environmental consulting firm Environmental Resources Planning of Gaithersburg, MD, in 2012 examined a variety of litter surveys to determine the extent to which polystyrene foam foodservice products contribute to litter.

ER Planning compiled information from nineteen litter surveys conducted in the U.S. and Canada from 1994 to 2009, including a 2008 national survey of 240 sites. The firm reviewed surveys that used statistically valid quantification and characterization methodologies.

The report found that polystyrene foam foodservice products “consistently constitute a small portion of litter (1.5 percent). Evaluating just the surveys conducted since 2000 yields an even lower median value of 1.1 percent.”

To change behavior, KAB teaches the following approach to community change:

  • Education—in schools and in communities;
  • Technology—equipment to measure and manage waste;
  • Ordinances—laws that impact solid waste and litter management; and
  • Enforcement—consistent, effective law and ordinance enforcement.

Some people have suggested that non-degradable litter should be specially targeted. However, behavioral studies suggest that litterers may feel less concerned about carelessly tossing “degradable” packaging, assuming that it just “goes away.” As noted, litter studies find large numbers of degradable materials (newspapers, snack wrappers, tissues) that do not simply “go away”. Waiting for litter to degrade on our sidewalks is hardly an answer…

And trading one type of littered items for another simply changes the makeup of litter without reducing it. For example, when San Francisco placed restrictions on the use of certain plastic foodservice products, the city found that alternatives became more littered see study). Substituting one type of litter for another is not a smart strategy.

The makers of plastic foodservice products, along with other plastic products, for many years have partnered with KAB and national, state and local officials to increase educational programs, raise awareness of the blight of litter—and also clean it up.


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