JANUARY 2010

Keep America Beautiful shares results of study
Litter and littering behavior examined

National nonprofit Keep America Beautiful has announced the results of the largest litter study ever conducted in the United States. The study identifies and dissects the causes, effects and costs of litter in America, and is the first major national survey of litter in the United States in 40 years.

Behavioral studies observed nearly 10,000 individuals in 130 locations in 10 states. Quantitative surveys measured roadway litter in GIS-selected samplings of 45 metropolitan areas nationwide, as well as 180 non-roadway sample locations.

Key findings:

KAB's Recommendations:

Education and cleanups work. Clearly, intense education and cleanup efforts have been the primary contributors to the significant decrease in litter over the past 40 years.

  • More receptacles work. Distance to receptacles is a strong predictor of littering behavior.
  • More recycling infrastructure is needed. Only 12 percent of public spaces surveyed had recycling receptacles.
  • Funding is needed. Corporations, foundations and government should all be taking the lead in funding /sponsoring education programs, volunteer programs and infrastructure. As with most societal issues, prevention is far less costly than remediation.

Keep America Beautiful commissioned this series of studies in 2008 and 2009 with funding from Philip Morris USA, an Altria Company. Behavioral research was conducted by Action Research, Inc., led by Wes Schultz, Professor of Psychology at California State University. The visible litter and litter cost study was conducted by Mid Atlantic Solid Waste Consultants, LLC, led by Steven Stein and John Culbertson.

Full copies of the Executive Summary and research are available online at www.kab.org/research09.

  • In the past 40 years, since 1968, the amount of litter in America has decreased by 61 percent nationwide, a change attributed to aggressive, long-term public education and cleanup programs. Yet litter remains a costly and often underestimated problem for the environment and quality of life.
  • Litter conservatively costs our nation $11.5 billion per year. These are direct costs, including cleanup and prevention programs, and are carried largely by businesses and taxpayers. Not included in this figure are significant indirect costs.
  • Decreased property values. 93 percent of homeowners, 55 percent of real estate agents and 90 percent of property appraisers surveyed stated that a littered neighborhood will decrease their assessment of a home’s value.
  • Health effects and related costs of littered environments.
  • The study concludes that at least 51.2 billion pieces of litter are left on roadways; an average of 6,729 pieces of litter per mile.
  • Cigarette butts comprise 38 percent of all items littered on the highways, streets, parks and playgrounds (in urban, suburban and rural areas of America).
  • People matter. Most littering observed in the study – 81 percent – was committed “with intent” by the individual, and was mainly attributable to lack of individual awareness or sense of obligation. The study showed that 17 percent of all observed disposals were classified as “improper” or littering.
  • Context matters. 15 percent of all littering can be attributed to context. The strongest contextual contributor to littering is the prevalence of existing litter. Other contextual variables affecting litter are the number of trash or ash receptacles present, and the distance between receptacles.
  • Age matters. Older individuals (30 and over) littered less than younger individuals, but gender was surprisingly not related to litter rates.