Just how big is Pennsylvania’s littering problem?Cigarette butts are the most common form of litter along Pennsylvania roadways and street curbs. The filters are made of plastic and may not decompose for a decade or more. (Keep Pennsylvania Beautiful)

At any given time, there are more than half a billion cigarette butts, plastic packaging from mostly fast-food restaurants, plastic bottles and sundry other items lying along the state’s 124,000 miles of roads.

That’s about 2,018 unwanted items for every mile of road, according to a first-ever statewide litter study released Wednesday by two state agencies and the Keep Pennsylvania Beautiful nonprofit citizens group.

The study, which relied in part on people walking every inch of selected roadsides counting cigarette butts, concludes that litter in Pennsylvania is chronic and accelerating. It affects economic development, the environment, human health and quality of life ­— and cleanups are costing taxpayers a lot of money.

After a “litter summit” attended by 124 people from state and local governments, citizens groups and industries, the state Department of Environmental Protection, Department of Transportation and Keep Pennsylvania Beautiful announced they would use the data as ammunition to launch a new statewide plan to combat litter.

“What we’re after is universal access. If you give people an opportunity to dispose of their waste properly, most people are going to do the right thing,” said Shannon Reiter, president of Keep Pennsylvania Beautiful.

Too many rural Pennsylvanians don’t have convenient community-run trash bins and many communities could do a better job of making recycling easier, she said.

Volunteers pick up litter along a Pennsylvania street. Pedestrians are responsible for 25% of the litter along the state’s roadways, according to a new study. (Keep Pennsylvania Beautiful)“Pennsylvania has a littering problem that cleanup efforts alone can’t solve,” said DEP Secretary Patrick McDonnell in a press release. “Litter undercuts our quality of life and the health of our waters and soil. It shortchanges community improvements and economic development as funds that could otherwise be spent more productively instead go to trash cleanup.”

The agencies and group announced the formation of a workgroup of state agencies, local governments and industry and community leaders that will use the research results as a springboard to develop a statewide litter reduction plan.

The three partners, along with hired consultants, surveyed various types of roadways in 180 sites statewide. They found that freeways and expressways are the most litter-prone and local roads the least. The culprits for the littering are motorists or passengers 59% of the time and pedestrians 25%, according to the study.

The study paints an ugly picture of the sheer quantity of litter that ends up along roads and urban curbs in a throwaway society.

They found that 37% of all pieces of litter were the filters of cigarette butts, about 186 million of them at any given time. Most cigarette butts are made up of cellulose acetate, a plastic that can take a decade or more to decompose.

Plastic film is the next most ubiquitous form of litter, most of that from food packaging, along with plastic beverage containers. Motorists and pedestrians are responsible for the most litter, with unsecured loads, trash trucks and debris from vehicle accidents also contributing.

On a typical day, more than 40 million beverage containers and fast-food products line Pennsylvania roadways of all types, both urban and rural. That includes paper bags, paper cups and plastic cups.(PA Department of Environmental Protection)

Illegal dumping has gotten so bad at roadside spots in state forests that surveillance cameras have been installed in nearby trees.

To make the case that cleaning up after litterbugs hits communities in the pocketbook, the study looked at nine cities in the state to see how they address litter.

Lancaster, Allentown, Altoona, Reading, Philadelphia, Erie, Harrisburg, Pittsburgh and Scranton collectively spend nearly $69 million annually on litter and illegal dumping cleanups, street sweeping, unclogging grates, extra trash and recycling receptacles, anti-littering education and enforcement.

The study also found that the cities spend 80% of that $69 million on cleanups, rather than prevention.

That money could be put to more useful community projects, the study noted. For example, between 2014 and 2018, PennDOT spent more than $65 million removing litter and debris from state roads across the state. The $14 million PennDOT annually spends cleaning up trash from roadsides is money that could be used to improve roads and bridges. 

Lancaster city officials reported that litter complaints were the top calls to city hall.

Like most municipalities, Lancaster city police don’t spend much time trying to catch litter violators because it’s so hard to catch someone in the act or get witnesses to testify.

Instead, the city tackled a related problem by hiring two fulltime employees to catch and cite people — often property owners — who do not recycle, put trash containers out too early and risk drawing animals, or who allow litter to accumulate on properties. About 4,000 violations are issued each year.

A poll conducted as part of the study sampled 502 residents statewide. More than 90% said that litter is a problem. Though they do not believe that littering leads to a life of crime, they think that litter has an impact on the environment, waterways, property taxes, home values, tourism, businesses and the safety of communities.

So what to do?(PA Department of Environmental Protection)

The study recommends increased public outreach, more funding for cleanups and litter awareness, better enforcement of litter laws and making trash receptacles and disposal sites more accessible.

Reiter agrees with that battle plan. Keep Pennsylvania Beautiful has been fighting litter since 1990, organizing nearly 80,000 community cleanups in which nearly 2.5 million volunteers have removed 141 million pounds of trash.

As for the need for the better enforcement of anti-littering laws long on the books, she said, “It’s very challenging to have a strong enforcement message when people don’t fear the message.”

Flipping a cigarette butt out a car window is a littering violation in the state and Reiter would like to see more people get busted for it. The group spends a lot of money handing out ash trays for vehicles and pocket ash trays for pedestrians.

Ultimately, she thinks the solution is society moving away from its throwaway economy. “It’s a disposable society, and we need to get by that,” she said.

But in the meantime, she wants people to see littering as the harmful act it is and have receptacles in plain sight.

“We need to be outraged that we’re spending millions and millions of dollars cleaning up litter and illegal dumping.”