Data on littering suggests that holding producers accountable would be a better option.
According to the group Keep America Beautiful, 24 billion pieces of litter were found on U.S. streets in 2020, and another 26 billion were picked up near waterways. These filthy trash fragments not only endanger wildlife, but they also harm communities by spreading illnesses and bacteria and reducing quality of life.
Existing policies to punish unlawful dumping and clean up what’s already on the ground may not be sufficient to break the cycle of new litter.
Between 2018 and 2020, environmental researcher Win Cowger and a group of students from the University of California, Riverside, fanned out across 18 sites in the Inland Empire region to pick up — and meticulously document — the trash scattered along roadways.
Even though they cleaned multiple times a week, they discovered nearly the same quantity of trash each time they returned.
We were keeping these sites pristinely clean, and that litter accumulation was steady, says Cowger. It was scary how steady it was.
Despite the fact that trash violation notices have increased by 300% in the previous decade, according to a study by the news site Billy Penn, some sidewalks in Philadelphia remain littered. Some tickets are even tossed in the trash.
Researchers like as Cowger say that improved policies are needed to keep trash off the streets in the first place. This requires addressing the fundamental causes of litter, as well as better data collection to determine what those causes are.
Policies could include banning particular things, such as plastic bags, or imposing a litter fee to discourage the sale of certain items. For example, San Francisco already charges shops a $1.05 tax per pack of cigarettes sold, which helps fund cleanup efforts. (According to Keep America Beautiful, cigarette butts are the most littered item in the country.)
Cowger’s recent collection effort, the results of which were published last week in the journal Environmental Research, discovered that single-use food packaging was one of the most common garbage items in the region, and that plastic made up roughly 60% of all litter. Mars Inc., Jack in the Box, and tobacco companies Phillip Morris and RJ Reynolds were the most common brands they found.
Many experts believe that, in addition to behavioral nudges and periodic cleanups, cities should hold the creators of litter accountable.
We should look to these companies whose names are on the trash and focus on them first, and get them to change the way they’re producing and selling products, Cowger says.
Large multinational firms have been identified as the leading sources of litter in past studies.
Cowger’s recent research indicated that the majority of roadside litter travels less than two miles from where it was created or sold, and that the majority was deposited on the streets by humans, rather than being carried by wind and stormwater runoff from its original location.
According to co-author Andrew Gray, this shows that trash generation is typically a local rather than a regional issue, and that anti-littering programs may be most effective if they are based on observations made at the community level. Finally, greater hyper-local data collecting is required.
In recent years, environmentalists and concerned people have increased their tracking efforts, and a small number of cities have already begun collecting data on their litter. Cowger’s team used Litterati, a popular software that crowdsources litter information from individuals all across the world, to capture and sort their data. Users geotag and record details like the material, object kind, and any related brand for each bit of rubbish they pick up — typically during community clean-ups. As founder Jeff Kirschner described it in a 2016 TED Talk presenting his app, this allows a community of residents to help establish a “unique litter fingerprint” of their city.
The company has worked with a number of U.S. towns to put the app to use, from monitoring commercial corridors in Norfolk, Virginia, to tracking hot spots in Memphis, Tennessee. Christopher Mitchell, the city’s anti-litter specialist, used data from Litterati to lobby for a ban on single-use plastic bags in Pittsburgh. According to Mitchell, plastic bags made up 6% of all rubbish collected and documented by volunteers.
He’s also utilizing data to improve the efficiency with which the city cleans its streets. He is now leading a project to create a Litter Index, which would map out the city’s litter density by street. According to crowdsourced data from a pilot in the summer of 2020, the dirtiest streets are not in the neighborhoods that generate the most 311 calls about trash.
The places with the most amount of litter are the least [likely] to tell us about it because they don’t feel there’s anything anybody can do about it, he says. They’re completely disconnected from the systems we set up.
Mitchell claims that by generating a litter heat map, the city can be proactive rather than reactive in allocating resources to the regions that need them the most.
Mitchell doesn’t expect the data to provide a solution for the city’s long-standing litter problem, but he does expect it to create a gold mine of data. As a result, when the city proposes a policy change or corrective action, they will have facts to support it.
It’s never going to be one big answer, he says. It’s a hundred little ones.
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