What’s in Your Town’s Litter?

By Nancy Grundahl

Litter! Oh how I hate it! I hate it so much I decided to do something about it. I started picking it up. Every work day I take a bag with me and pick up litter on my walk home from the train station. I am always amazed at how much I find.

After a while I noticed a curious thing about the litter in the town where I live. Most of our litter is food-related: beverage cans, bottles and bottle caps, straws, candy and gum wrappers, take-out containers, plastic utensils, napkins… A distant second is paper, mainly ATM and store receipts and old mail that escaped from our paper recycling pickup on Mondays.

So, I searched the web and found, much to my surprise, that what I am finding is not unusual. Food-related waste makes up the highest percentage of litter in other places in the U.S. too. Here is a sample of what I found.

·    Northeast 2010 Litter Survey of Vermont, Maine and New Hampshire Conducted for the American Beverage Association

o    “Miscellaneous paper and plastic (odd scraps of material) comprised the two largest components of litter; candy, snack wrappers, and fast food packaging together represented between 29 and 30 percent of litter; and beverage containers was similar, ranging from 5.6 percent to 7.9 percent.”

·    Clean Water Action – California

o    “Most of the products collected were food and beverage packaging: 48 percent food packaging, 19 percent beverage packaging, 15 percent non-packaging, 9 percent other packaging, 9 percent tobacco packaging.”

·    City of Hampton, Virginia

  • “Fast food, snack, tobacco, and other packaging dominated the types of litter that were larger than 4 inches in size – they were 46 percent of the total.”
  • “Main Types of Litter – Fast Food Waste 33 percent”
  • “The items most often found during litter cleanups are fast-food wrappers. The second-most-often found items are aluminum beer cans, followed very closely by soda cans.”

Have you ever thought about what’s in your town’s litter? The next time there is a cleanup day, go a step further and count and categorize the wastes you collect. You might even want to take some photos. Or, do as I have, start picking up litter on your walks and see what you find.

Why is this important? What you discover will be helpful when looking for the best approach to preventing the litter in the first place. When you figure out the sources, you’ll have a better idea of how to make it stop.

About the author: Nancy Grundahl has worked for the Philadelphia office of EPA since the mid-80’s. Nancy believes in looking at environmental problems in a holistic, multi-media way and is a strong advocate of preventing pollution instead of dealing with it after it has been created. Nancy also writes for the “Healthy Waters for EPA’s Mid-Atlantic Region” blog.

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