End Littering Resources

Litter is costly to clean up, impacts our quality of life and economic development, and eventually ends up in our waterways and oceans.

Litter in America

As might be expected, the majority of roadside litter was attributed to motorists (53%). However, a sizeable percentage was attributed to pedestrians (23%), improperly covered loads (16%), debris from the vehicles themselves (2%), and spillage from receptacles in the surrounding vicinity (1%). Historically in studies of litter, there has been a specific emphasis on beverage containers. The current estimates project a total of 1.4 billion beverage containers on our nation’s roadways (3% of all litter). While the majority of these containers are beer (30%) and soft drinks (25%), there has been a growth in the number of water (6%) and sports drinks (3%). Multi-linear regression analyses were performed of site attributes that correlated with the quantity of observed litter. Key findings included:

  • Residential areas were 40% less littered than roadways in general.
  • Locations near loading docks were 29% less littered.
  • Roadways near convenience stores were 11% more littered.
  • Roadways near commercial establishments were 11% more littered.
  • Solid waste and recycling facilities were associated with less litter than average within 1 mile, but more litter for 2-5 miles. This effect increased as the number of facilities increased.

The methodology used in the 2009 study allowed for comparisons to a 1969 national litter study, also funded by Keep America Beautiful. Several significant conclusions can be drawn when comparing the 1969 and 2009 litter surveys:

  • The actual count of overall litter is down by 61% since 1969.
  • This decrease, a result of successful education, ongoing cleanup efforts and changes in packaging, is reflected in dramatic reductions of paper, metal and glass litter since 1969.
  • Plastic litter has increased by 165% since 1969.

The results from these comparisons suggest that litter along roadways, at a national level, decreased by 61% between 1969 and 2009. The reductions are particularly noteworthy in metal (down 88%), glass (down 86%), and paper (down 79%). Reflecting the increasing use of plastic in packaging materials over the past 40 years (+340% per capita, source: U.S. EPA), plastic litter has predictably increased (+165%).

The study also sampled six types of non-roadway areas (180 sampling sites) using the same coding methodology: transition points, storm drains, loading docks, recreation areas, construction sites, and retail sites. Of these, transition sites and storm drains were the most littered, though different litter characteristics were reported at all six types of sites. This is particularly important given that litter near storm drains is likely to wash into local waterways, with potential for serious environmental contamination.

Costs of Litter

The national costs of litter abatement were estimated using data collected from cities, counties, states, educational institutions, and businesses. Indirect costs were estimated with surveys of real estate brokers, business development officers, property appraisers, and homeowners. While some obstacles were reported in obtaining comparable data from the diverse sources, the available data lead to a projected cost of $11.5 billion in annual litter clean-up and prevention. The bulk of this ($9.1 billion) is incurred by businesses. This estimate is likely an underestimate, given that many cleanup costs are buried in staff, maintenance and various departmental budgets.

In addition to the direct costs of litter, the team also explored the indirect costs of litter, particularly to property values and housing prices. The team cites other evidence indicating that the presence of litter in a community decreases property values by 7%. The reported data bear out the impact of litter on property values, as 40 percent of homeowners surveyed think that litter reduces home values by 10-24 percent, while 55 percent of realtors think that litter reduces property values by about 9 percent, and 60 percent of property appraisers would reduce a home’s assessed value if it was littered.

The research findings described in this executive summary and detailed in the two technical reports available through the KAB website, support a number of conclusions and recommendations. Below we highlight four key findings from across the studies.

A. Litter and littering has decreased in the past 40 years, but it remains an important problem. In the litter characterization study, visible roadside litter was found to have decreased by about 61% since 1968. Similarly, the results from the nationwide telephone survey showed that 15% of Americans reported littering in the past month, down from 50% in 1968.

Yet despite these marked reductions, litter remains an important problem. Nationwide, our research estimates that there are 51.2 billion pieces of litter on our nation’s roadways, and the large majority of this litter is less than 4 inches. The nationwide observations showed a national littering rate of 17% -- that is, of all the disposals that take place in public places (at least, the types of places we observed), 17% result in litter.

B. The cost of litter is substantial. Litter has a number of negative consequences, including substantial costs to business and government, and reduced property values. Estimates for the cost of litter show that $11.5 billion are spent on abatement and clean-up activities each year, and this number probably underestimates the true costs.

C. Preventing litter—the person. The cumulative results from both sets of studies clearly indicate that individuals are the key source of litter. In fact, the observational results found that 81% of observed littering acts were intentional. Similarly, the litter characterization study estimated that more than 90% of litter found at transition points could be traced back to an individual’s disposal decision. Our estimates show that as much as 85% of littering behavior can be attributed to the individual (and conversely, 15% to the context).

Two important person-level variables emerged from our analyses. The first is age, where we consistently find that younger individuals are more likely to litter (and report littering) than older individuals. This group presents a clear market segment for focused messaging and campaigns. But going beyond the passive media and messaging campaigns, the finding also highlights the need to actively involve youth in clean-up and beautification activities. Involving individuals in clean-up activities can help to raise their awareness about litter as an issue, and to increase their commitment to prevent litter. A second variable that emerged from our findings is a personal obligation to not litter. Individuals who hold the belief that littering is wrong, and consequently feel a personal obligation not to litter, are less likely to do so (both in their self-reports, and in their observed littering rates).

D. Preventing litter—the context. While it’s tempting to focus exclusively on the person as a source of litter, our research clearly shows that littering is a function of both the person and the context. Consequently any effort to reduce litter and littering needs to focus on both.

One of the strongest contributors to littering is the prevalence of existing litter. Consistently in our results, we find that litter begets litter. Individuals are much more likely to litter into littered environments (as seen in the observational studies), and they are less likely to report littering into beautified environments (from the telephone survey). These findings strongly support the need for ongoing clean-up and beautification efforts. Indeed, posting litter prevention messages or signs in already-littered environments is likely to exacerbate the littering problem, rather than fix it.

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