Litter should be an easy environmental problem to fix. But it's been a stubborn and expensive one for years. The Trash Free Potomac Watershed Initiative in the Washington, DC, area has hatched an elaborate plan to keep litter out of waterways, where it's become a nuisance measured in tons. As part of their plan, they called in the cops.
If that seems extreme, consider this: Volunteers in the last annual Potomac River Watershed Cleanup pulled 262 tons of trash — including 1,566 tires, 37,600 cigarette butts, 31,450 plastic bags and 185,300 recyclable containers — from area waterways throughout April.
"[Litter] not only affects the beauty of our communities, it can decrease house prices and has been shown to correlate with increased crime," said Clara Elias, a program associate for the Trash Free Potomac Watershed Initiative at the Alice Ferguson Foundation. She added that 80 percent of the Potomac River basin's population gets its drinking water from the river, which contains a huge amount of trash.
When it comes to changing behavior, one way to reduce litter is by using a carrot — incentives, education — and the other is a stick — holding litterers accountable.
That's why litter and illegal dumping law enforcement is part of the Trash Free Potomac Watershed Initiative's multi-pronged approach to slashing the amount of waterway trash. In addition to law enforcement, the plan includes teaching the community through public awareness campaigns and pushing policy changes.
Through surveys, interviews and focus groups, the Trash Free Initiative — created and organized by the Alice Ferguson Foundation with partner groups — glimpsed inside the minds of litterers, who reported that they tossed trash because they felt they could get away with it. They felt complacent, indifferent.
"They said that if they felt like they would get caught, then that would be an incentive to change their behavior," Elias said. "That's why we got into enforcement."
Littering — from the flick of a cigarette butt to the drive-by dumping of trash bags — is a crime. And as a crime, there are real consequences: In Maryland, tossing litter or dumping illegally can invoke penalties ranging from $500 to $30,000 in fines and/or up to five years in jail. In DC, any litter thrown from a vehicle earns a $100 fine. Those guilty of illegal dumping in the District can face up to 90 days of jail time and $5,000 to $10,000 in fines. If one is guilty of commercial dumping that fine spikes to $40,000 with imprisonment.
Virginia punishes litterers with fines ranging from $250 to $2,500 and/or up to a year in jail — or community service requirements to pick up litter — and dumping fines top off at $5,000.
In Pennsylvania, littering fines range from $50 to $1,000 with up to 90 days in jail; dumping fines can soar as high as $25,000, and/or imprisonment for up to a year.
No matter where one is, the punishment fits the crime: Penalties are determined by location and amount of litter. "It really depends on what the offense is and its impact on the community," Elias said.
Officers are cracking down on litterbugs gradually, hoping that the threat of legal action and fines will be enough to discourage trashy behavior.
"The whole idea is to get the message out there that yes, you can get caught," Elias said.
To start, the Trash Free Potomac Watershed Initiative made April Litter Enforcement Month, during which nearly a dozen regional law enforcement departments in Virginia, Maryland and DC heighten their awareness of litter, illegal dumping and related crimes, as well as the laws associated with them. During the month, special training by the Alice Ferguson Foundation, regional law enforcement departments from Maryland, Virginia and DC, and the police chiefs committee of the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments refresh officers on current codes, how to better enforce those codes, how to investigate illegal dumping sites, where officers can find resources to call on, and why litter enforcement is important to communities.
During last April's Litter Enforcement Month, officers in the metro DC area issued 84 litter and illegal dumping citations — 45 civil citations and 39 criminal — and 766 other citations, such as uncovered hauling, illegal tire piling, graffiti, hoarding and abandoned property. Litter codes apply year-round, but Litter Enforcement Month refocuses law enforcement's resources on catching litterers.
"Litter is one of those things where you don't always catch them in the act," said Lt. Brendan Devaney of the Prince George's County Police. Sometimes, he continued, if a bag of trash is dumped, officers can sleuth through and often find an address to trace back to.
"As a police officer, it's easy to find someone violating a traffic law," said Cpl. Richard Kashe with the Prince George's County Police's Community Service Division. "But maybe while you're enforcing that someone throws a cigarette out the window." After the training, officers may be more acutely aware of such littering infractions.
Or, littering may be a red flag for more serious offenses.
"A few years ago, we had an officer stop somebody for throwing a cigarette butt out, and [that led to] a large drug arrest because they found drugs in the car," Kashe said.
This April will be the third annual Litter Enforcement Month, and Elias and colleagues from the initiative hope to build on the efforts from the last two years.
While litter law enforcement improves, there's more work to do inside the legal systems to make sure that courts also recognize the seriousness of the crime.
"It's not a 'sexy' crime," Devaney said. In April, Prince George's County had several litter and litter-related arrests and identified 38 new illegal dumps sites. "It's easy to walk into court with someone who just got locked up for drug use, but let me walk into court and say to a judge 'he littered,' and they don't take you seriously."
But, in many cases, communities care a lot about nuisance crimes — sometimes more than real crime — because that affects their quality of life, Devaney explained. In addition, studies show that there is a strong correlation between high volumes of litter and increased crime — so controlling the litter problem can help curb other types of crime.
Need more good reasons to curtail litter? In Virginia alone, the Department of Transportation spends around $6.5 million a year on litter control on nearly 57,000 miles of interstate, primary and secondary roads. In addition, cigarette butts thrown out car windows caused 190 fires in Virginia according to a 2001 report, resulting in about 464 burned acres. Pennsylvania spends $10.1 million cleaning up roadside litter every year, plus around $835 per ton to clean up each illegal dump site. Officials estimate that there are thousands of these sites.
By holding litterbugs accountable, the initiative hopes a mix of solutions will change the way people think about — and act toward — the environment.