Trash Talk: From Litter to Illegal Dumping

From litter to illegal dumping, solid waste management is a big and complex issue impacting community health, environmental sustainability, and city budgets. Dilapidated buildings, littered streets, and neglected public spaces affect a city’s aesthetics and profoundly impact its residents’ quality of life. Researchers at the University of Toronto found that “perceived beauty or aesthetic character of a location has a positive and significant effect on perceived community satisfaction. It is one of the most significant factors alongside economic security, good schools, and the perceived capacity for social interaction.”1 Studies have shown that cleaner, well-maintained neighborhoods tend to experience lower crime rates2 and higher property values.3 Further, a 2018 study looking at vacant lot cleanups and blight reduction efforts impact on community mental health concluded, “[t]he treatment of blighted physical environments, particularly in resource-limited urban settings, can be an important treatment for mental health problems alongside other patient-level treatments.”4

The Cost of Litter

Most states estimate the amount spent on litter collection. Most often, these cost calculations capture the direct cost of litter removal or illegal dump cleanup efforts by the state’s transportation department. For example, the Tennessee Department of Transportation (TDOT) spends $23 million annually on litter removal.5 The direct costs of cleaning up litter include fleet vehicles, staff wages, equipment and personal protective equipment, street sweeping, stormwater catchment devices, stormdrain cleanup, and public education. In 2013, the National Resources Defense Council estimated that in California, the average cost per capita of litter cleanup ranged from $9.50 per person in Los Angeles to $68 per person in LA County.6

Bar graph showing the Annual Total Cost of the Top-10 California Communities. From largest expenses to smallest: 
Los Angeles
San Diego
Long Beach
San Jose
Redondo Beach
South Gate
2013 Report by National Resources Defense Council

Unfortunately, despite consistent and innovative government and grassroots efforts, LA still struggles with illegal dumping. A 2021 report by the LA Controller goes into detail about the extent of the problems:

“Illegal dumping service requests have spiked nearly 450% — going from an average of 457 requests per month in 2016 to approximately 2,500 requests per month in 2020. And the amount of solid waste picked up by LASAN in the PROW has similarly piled up, increasing from nearly 9,200 tons in 2016 to 14,500 tons through the first eight months of 2020.”

Piling Up: Addressing L.A.’s Illegal Dumping Problem

A study by Alaska shed some light on a possible national total. Alaska’s Department of Transportation and Public Facilities estimates the “annual cost of roadside litter control nationwide is $115 million.”7 These amounts likely reflect the direct expenses related to roadside and highway cleanup. Including indirect expenses related to processing solid waste, issuing fines, and supervising community service likely add up to much more.

The 2020 Keep America Beautiful Litter Study found that 50 billion pieces of litter clog and clutter America’s roadways and waterways. The estimated cost of this litter is over $11 billion dollars. While this is a shocking amount of trash, it is trending in the right direction. Thanks to governmental and nongovernmental action, litter along both roadways and waterways has decreased since their 2009 study.

Trash Talk, Legally Speaking

Complicating the cost calculations is the varied language used by governmental and non-governmental organizations in defining the issue. Some regularly used terms that define trash-related problems include Illegal dumping, solid waste, pollutants, and litter. Litter typically refers to household and resident or pedestrian solid waste improperly discarded, while illegal dumping often includes solid and chemical waste from residential households, commercial enterprises, and encampments of unhoused individuals. Chemicals may include runoff from manufacturing, industrial, livestock, poultry plants, or something as simple as improperly disposed of residential paint.

State Littering Penalties

Reflecting the diversity of terms used to describe litter, state litter laws vary greatly. In 2022, the National Conference of State Legislators looked at the variety of ways litter is evaluated and regulated by states across the US. They found that some states have fines as low as $25 while others have fines of thousands of dollars. Additionally, the location, type, and weight may determine the fine. These state-level regulations are used to enforce illegal dumping along state highways, state parks, and other state property.

State littering penalties vary greatly. This table displays the states of Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, and California and their state code and corresponding penalty. Alabama's penalty is a Class B misdemeanor with a first conviction of $500 and maximum of $1000 fine and up to 100 hours of community service. Additional details can be found at the source link.
Source: States with Littering Penalties

Law enforcement of litter and illegal dumping laws is an emerging research area. Few multi-state studies evaluate the effectiveness of state litter laws and best practices for enforcing and reducing litter. One of the first multi-state studies was commissioned by Keep Pennsylvania Beautiful and PalmettoPride of South Carolina. This study evaluates the penalties, attitudes, behaviors, and influencing factors. They used interviews and five years of data ranging from 2016 to 2020 to come to the following conclusions:

  • “Law enforcement officers believe that enforcement is integral to preventing littering and illegal dumping.”
  • Despite consistent enforcement efforts, littering remains a persistent problem.
  • “[H]igher fines, especially for litter violations, are not considered a deterrent.”
  • Cleanup and community service were preferred to fines and court action.

Challenges & Opportunities

The study identifies several challenges that both Pennsylvania and South Carolina face:

State of Pennsylvania had an 83% guilty rate when tickets were issued for littering.
  • small number of counties reporting ticketing for littering or illegal dumping
  • staffing issues
  • shifting priorities at state and local levels around the topic
  • the need for continuing public education and engagement about the multiple impacts of littering
    and illegal dumping
State of South Carolina had an 87% guilty rate when tickets were issued for littering.

None of these challenges will surprise the experienced code enforcement or DOT employee. While a small number of ticketing counties can be an issue, when tickets are issued and reach the magistrate, 80%-90% reach a guilty verdict, guilty plea, or negotiated guilty plea. However, the study doesn’t end with the challenges.

Streamlining Reduces Costs

The study identifies an opportunity: streamlining the penalty and community service processes. South Carolina successfully streamlined the penalty process in 2018 by defining a clear process for issuing fines. They complimented the streamlined fining process with a streamlined community service process. Their newly streamlined community service process allows some counties to require community service without direct supervision.

Here is how South Carolina is streamlining their penalty and community service processes:

“The model used in Aiken County, South Carolina, was referenced where offenders are assigned a road or highway with a set number of hours estimated to clean that section, e.g., 4 hours to clean all litter and bag the litter along both sides of the road. The system provides flexibility for the county and the offender. The verification process is simple, with the county office counting the bags, visually assessing the cleanliness of the road, collecting the bags for proper disposal, and reporting the hours for the offender to the court.”

Source: Pennsylvenia and South Carolina Law Enforcement Litter Study

Municipal Differences Cause Confusion

Pennsylvania officials expressed concerns over this streamlined process, citing the challenges of consistently enforcing community service referrals and the burden of supervising community service.

Looking to streamline your litter community service processes? City Detect can help! Our proprietary technology lets you inspect roadways with near-real-time data, photographic evidence, maps, and more. Here’s how it works.

As is evident from Pennsylvenia’s concerns over municipal differences, municipalities have additional codes for litter and illegal dumping. For example, Seattle, WA, has a municipal ban on putting recyclable materials in the garbage, which can result in a $50 fine. However, less than an hour away, Tacoma, WA has no such fine. Understandably, a well-intentioned Tacoman may violate the stricter Seattle litter laws. This example reinforces one of the major findings from the Pennsylvania and South Carolina Law Enforcement Litter Study: a greater need for public understanding of the impacts of littering. Including education and community outreach components to complement legal action is important. Through a targeted social media campaign, resource guides, adding information to existing mailers (like water and sewage bills), and other outreach methods, residents can better understand how individual actions add up to big expenses.

Solid Waste Infrastructure

In addition to the code variations between municipalities, solid waste management infrastructure also differs across municipalities. Material Recovery Facilities – recycling and solid waste management facilities – are very expensive to build. In 2018, only about 5-10 new Material Recovery Facilities (MRF) were built per year in the US. The cost for a new MRF can range from $20 million to $30 million.8 Retrofitting a facility and upgrading for new environmental best practices or expanded capacity can cost nearly as much as a new build. Mecklenburg County, North Carolina, approved a $25.7 million rebuild of their recycling facility.9 Some states have grants available to help offset these costs. For example, the Alabama Department of Environmental Management issues several grants annually to assist in purchasing and upgrading solid waste management equipment.10 11

Learn more about grants to fund urban redevelopment and fight blight here.

Implementing Best Practices

The study closes by providing several recommendations to state and municipal governments and law enforcement involved with litter reduction:

  • continue promoting litter law enforcement
  • simplify litter laws by creating common penalty language across jurisdictions
  • use technology for data collection and validation of community service (our obvious favorite!)
  • continue and increase public awareness campaigns
  • improve waste management policies and infrastructure

City Detect’s AI-powered technology is your solution to data collection. Schedule a demo today.


Litter is a complex issue because it is grounded in human behavior, codified by municipal and state laws, and impacts our personal and community health, wealth, and environment. Scarce resources compound both grassroots and governmental efforts. The issues outlined, ranging from enforcement challenges to the necessity for widespread public education and inconsistencies in municipal regulations, underscore the urgent need for a coherent, streamlined strategy in waste management. Recommendations from various analyses offer a roadmap for action, stressing the importance of harmonizing laws, employing technology for enforcement, and bolstering public awareness efforts.

Fortunately, progress is possible as the body of research and technological advances allow communities to streamline processes. However, complex problems require a coalition of diverse stakeholders to join forces to clean up cities and coasts. Our next post explores grassroots efforts and partnerships that create a difference.

Sources & Resources

  1. Florida, R., Mellander, C., & Stolarick, K. (2011). Beautiful places: The role of perceived aesthetic beauty in community satisfaction. Regional studies45(1), 33-48. ↩︎
  2. Pizarro, J. M., Sadler, R. C., Goldstick, J., Turchan, B., McGarrell, E. F., & Zimmerman, M. A. (2020). Community-driven disorder reduction: Crime prevention through a clean and green initiative in a legacy city. Urban Studies57(14), 2956-2972. ↩︎
  3. Nepal, M., Rai, R. K., Khadayat, M. S., & Somanathan, E. (2020). Value of cleaner neighborhoods: Application of hedonic price model in low income context. World Development131, 104965. ↩︎
  4. South EC, Hohl BC, Kondo MC, MacDonald JM, Branas CC. Effect of Greening Vacant Land on Mental Health of Community-Dwelling Adults: A Cluster Randomized Trial. JAMA Netw Open. 2018 Jul 6;1(3):e180298. doi: 10.1001/jamanetworkopen.2018.0298. Erratum in: JAMA Netw Open. 2018 Aug 3;1(4):e182583. PMID: 30646029; PMCID: PMC6324526. ↩︎
  5. Nobody Trashes Tennessee. (2023)What is the cost of littering? Explore the impacts on Tennessee. ↩︎
  6. Waste in Our Waterways Unveiling the Hidden Costs to Californians of Litter Clean-Up ↩︎
  7. Did You Know…? Adopt-A-Highway Facts ↩︎
  8. More bang for your buck
    RRT Design & Construction CEO Nat Egosi discusses what MRF operators can expect when it comes to retrofits. ↩︎
  9. MRFs move ahead with multi-million-dollar upgrades ↩︎
  10. Section 319 Grant Resources ↩︎
  11. Recycling Program ↩︎

Katherine Zobre

Katherine Zobre has ten years of professional grant writing experience working in Economic Development. She has experience with international, federal, local, and nonprofit grants. She also works with economic development agencies to create innovative programs to support equitable growth and support to underserved communities. She has an MS in International Development Studies from The University of Amsterdam in the Netherlands and BA in Political Science and Economics from the University of Maryland. Katherine has lived, worked, and volunteered in 11 countries across 5 continents.