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Littering, illegal dumping impact every corner of Pennsylvania

Earth Matters

A half billion pieces of litter are scattered about Pennsylvania’s roadways at any given point in time.

That doesn’t count all the illegally dumped trash spread throughout Penn’s Woods, nor does it include everything littering farms, forests, neighborhoods and shorelines we can’t see from the roadside.

It is not just a rural or urban problem either. A recent study by Keep Pennsylvania Beautiful showed that the litter problem is nearly equally divided between rural and urban highways.

Litter is yet another challenge which should unite, rather than divide us. Litter impacts every corner of the state, all communities, and counties predominated by both political parties.

And the list of littered items is not dominated by one or two categories of waste either. Cigarette butts make up a large portion of the trash smaller than four inches and beverage containers are an inordinate part of the easily visible waste. But there are seven other litter categories which each contribute more than four percent.

Convinced the litter and dumping problems in Pennsylvania have undermined our quality of life and economic vitality, I was encouraged to hear that the Pennsylvania Departments of Transportation and Environmental Protection were organizing a new statewide committee to draft a Pennsylvania Litter Action Plan. Always happy to give my two-cents worth of input, I was excited to be invited to join the committee.

The temporary insanity that prompted me to join three different workgroups on the committee didn’t just exhibit my passion to make a difference, it was a further testimony to the complexity of our litter and dumping struggles in Pennsylvania. The first workgroup, this one on enforcement, met this past week and the two dozen members explained why they believed dumping and littering still confounds us.

The public does not understand or fully appreciate the cost of litter and dumping.

Beyond the millions spent on cleanups, there are other costs that are difficult to quantify — the loss of business driven off by the squalor littering produces, damage to farm equipment when it runs over litter, and contamination of water resources being the three most notable.

Litterers throw trash “Away” failing to recognize that their “Away” is someone else’s “Here.” Similarly, illegal dumpers place their trash on someone else’s property, thinking they have found free disposal. Cleanups, however, cost four or more times more than proper disposal.

Prosecutions for littering and dumping are difficult, the courts often requiring a long chain of evidence that is difficult, time-consuming, and expensive to produce. The clandestine dumping done over the hills and far away magnifies this challenge.

Our judicial system often does not recognize environmental crimes as real crime or realize the costs of cleaning up the messes. Fines often end up being smaller than the costs the dumpers avoided by dumping illegally.

Local governments too often believe waste somehow mysteriously takes care of itself. Studies confirm that illegal dumping of trash is much more common when local governments do not facilitate or provide comprehensive waste service that’s affordable and convenient.

Clearly, the culture of trash must change at every level and all across the Commonwealth. Without this change, our image as a fading Rust Belt state will only get rustier.

John Frederick (www.johnjfrederick.com)

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