National Litter Study

A study commissioned by Keep America Beautiful in 2020 estimated that there are over 50 billion pieces of litter on American roadways and waterways and that we spend over $11 billion annually trying to clean them up. Wow! The study showed the most common types of roadside litter included cigarette butts, food wrappers, bottles, cans and various paper articles. While cigarette butts littered have declined dramatically from 2009 to 2020, it will come as no surprise that cardboard from our ever increasing consumer economy using on-line shopping with its associated packaging and delivery truck miles, sports drinks containers and water containers now make up much more of the litter. During the COVID-19 pandemic, littered personal protective equipment (PPE), both gloves and masks, received a great deal of attention. While PPE gloves and masks are both relatively large in size and noticeable as littered items, they also are novel pieces of litter and very much confined to the COVID-19 pandemic. At the time of the study, it was estimated that approximately 207 million pieces of PPE gloves and masks could be found across America’s roads and along our waterways. As a point of comparison, this is about the same as plastic straws.

Thank goodness for the No Straw November movement or imagine how many more plastic straws would have been used and be in our landfills or litter our roadways. According to Gregory’s statistically insignificant sample of litter in our community since the pandemic began, masks and gloves have indeed joined Johnny Bootlegger bottles as the leading items littered. Insert eye roll here.

Back to the report. There was also good news. First, there is some evidence that the prevalence of trash had actually decreased in 2020 compared to the 1960s when single use packaging first became widespread and compared to 2009 when the study was last conducted. Second, and most important, there was strong evidence that litter cleanup efforts are effective tools in discouraging future littering.

One of the strongest contributors to littering is the prevalence of existing litter. Consistently
in our results, we find that litter begets litter. Individuals are much more likely to litter into
littered environments (as seen in the observational studies), and they are less likely to report
littering into beautified environments (from the telephone survey). These findings strongly
support the need for ongoing clean-up and beautification efforts. Indeed, posting litter prevention
messages or signs in already-littered environments is likely to exacerbate the littering problem,
rather than fix it.

National Visible Litter Survey and Litter Cost Study, prepared by MidAtlantic Solid Waste Consultants

Who Is to Blame?


Research shows males 18-34 years old are the biggest offenders, but litter bugs come in all shapes and sizes. Evidence shows about 40% of littering comes from intentional acts, while 60% occurs unintentionally when people fail to secure loads.


Sadly, videos like the one below have been captured around the world. Hopefully, this level of environmental damage no longer happens domestically, but it certainly still occurs on a smaller scale.

The Results of Litter

The dreadful photos all over the internet, a couple of which are displayed below, depress us but we can’t just give up and do nothing. We need to make a difference in our community and work out from there across the United States and the world. The problem belongs to all of us. Because so much waste (especially plastic food packaging) has ended up in waterways, the United Nations has declared the plastic pollution of oceans “a planetary crisis.” Per the study commissioned by Keep America Beautiful, if everyone in the United States would pick up just 152 pieces of litter, we would be litter free. Just 152 pieces? That’s doable. We pick up that much taking our dog for a walk on a trail or beside a road. Join us and let’s all make a difference!

Animals Are Suffering:

Plastic Islands in Our Oceans Are Not Just Surface Deep:

We have all seen pictures of trashed beaches, kids bathing and swimming in litter strewn waters and the Plastic Islands in the Pacific Ocean. Unreal! But it’s not just in the Pacific. Ocean gyres depicted below collect much of the litter. We would call this efficient if it weren’t so gross and tragic! Plastic Islands are a reality not just in the Pacific but in oceans across our planet. It is estimated that there are billions of pounds of plastic made up of trillions of pieces swirling around the oceans, carried along by the currents. Like an iceberg, only about five percent of that plastic mass is visible on the surface; the rest is floating below or has settled out onto the ocean floor.

  • Scientists from the U.K. have discovered the highest level of microplastics ever recorded on the seafloor, with up to 1.9 million pieces of plastic covering just one square meter at the bottom of the ocean.
  • The harmful plastic debris has been pulled down by powerful deep-sea currents, creating microplastic hotspots, a deep-sea equivalent of so-called garbage patches created by currents on the ocean’s surface. 
  • Toxic chemicals from microplastics have been found to hurt animals such as insects and marine species by blocking their digestive systems.
  • Almost everybody has heard of the infamous ocean ‘garbage patches’ of floating plastic, but researchers were shocked at the high concentrations of microplastics found in the deep-seafloor.

A Culture of Clutter

There is really no sustainable solution until we begin to change the culture of consumerism, overuse of disposables, and entitlement that leads people to littering.

The University of California Los Angeles (UCLA) performed a study on the lives of everyday families and all of their stuff. What they found? A staggering number and array of possessions put anywhere in the house, everywhere there’s room, or even if there’s no room. Park the car on the street to store more stuff in the garage. Pile the dirty laundry in the shower because there’s nowhere else to store it and no time to wash it. And does all this stuff create peace and happiness? Nope. Stress and anxiety.

Good news/bad news is that a whole industry of organizers and even commercialized/branded de-cluttering methods like Marie Kondo (complete with products you can buy….go figure) have sprung up out of the U.S. culture of over-consumerism and one-time use/discard of items. Ooorrrr….how about if we just buy less stuff that 1) costs money, 2) creates more packaging and emissions via delivery or store stocking, we then have to 3) clean, 4) maintain, 5) store, 6) organize, 7) that causes us stress and 8) we eventually discard responsibly by selling it giving it away, recycling it, sending it to the landfill or irresponsibly by littering? Our family of seven has a too large home but with lots of empty closets and cubbies, plus very little clutter. Our older brothers and sister got a couple McDonald’s Happy Meals, but not many. And us younger kids? Not one. Not ever. We are such deprived children….or not! When our family doesn’t use something any longer, we don’t wait until it’s obsolete, but we timely give it away to someone who can use and appreciate it.