Litter Prevention Facts

Littering is a habit and prevention starts with you. Research and experience have shown that litter is the result of individual behavior—choosing to litter or being careless in the handling of waste. Once litter is on the ground, it attracts more litter. A clean community, by contrast, can discourage littering and improve community appearance and quality of life.

You have a role to play in preventing litter. It only takes one person, one school, one business, one organization to positively impact the behavior of others in their community.

Here’s what you need to know:

The Costs of Littering

Over 51 billion pieces of litter land on U.S. roadways each year. Most of it, 46.6 billion pieces, is less than four inches, according to KAB’s 2009 National Visible Litter Survey and Litter Cost Study. That’s 6,729 items per mile. While visible roadside litter has decreased by about 61% since 1969, litter is still a persistent problem. Consider these facts:

  • Litter cleanup costs the U.S. almost $11.5 billion each year, with businesses paying $9.1 billion. Governments, schools, and other organizations pick up the remainder.
  • Community economy and quality of life suffer. The presence of litter in a community takes a toll on quality of life, property values, and housing prices. KAB’s 2009 National Visible Litter Survey and Litter Cost Study found that litter in a community decreases property values 7%.
  • Litter has environmental consequences. Wind and weather, traffic, and animals move litter into gutters, lawns and landscaped areas, alleyways, and parking structures. Debris may be carried by storm drains into local waterways, with potential for serious environmental contamination.

Who Litters and Why

Along roadways, motorists (52%) and pedestrians (23%) are the biggest contributors to litter. Research also shows that individuals under 30 are more likely to litter than those who are older. In fact, age, and not gender, is a significant predictor of littering behavior. So why do people litter? Here’s what KAB’s 2009 Littering Behavior in America research found:
  • Personal choice. Nearly one in five individuals, or 17% of all disposals observed in public spaces, littered, while 83% disposed of litter properly. And 81% of littering was intentional, e.g., flicking, flinging, or dropping. On the other hand, individuals who hold the belief that littering is wrong, and consequently feel a personal obligation not to litter, are less likely to do so.
  • Litter begets litter. Individuals are much more likely to litter into a littered environment. And once there, it attracts more litter. By contrast, a clean community discourages littering and improves overall community quality of life. Availability and proximity to trash and recycling receptacles also impact whether someone chooses to litter.
  • It’s “not my responsibility”. Some people feel no sense of ownership for parks, walkways, beaches, and other public spaces. They believe someone else will pick up after them; that it’s not their responsibility.

How to Put a Stop to Littering

To eliminate litter, KAB research shows we have to address littering behavior and change the environment. According to KAB’s 2009 Littering Behavior in America study:
  • About 85% of littering is the result of individual attitudes. Changing individual behavior is key to preventing litter.
  • Nearly one in five, or 17%, of all disposals observed in public spaces were littering. The remainder (83%) was properly discarded in a trash or recycling receptacle.
  • A strong contributor to littering is the prevalence of existing litter. About 15% of littering is affected by the environment. Litter on the ground begets more litter.

KAB’s “Pressure Points” for Behavior Change

Traditional approaches to litter, most particularly cleanup projects, work only to remove the litter and do little to prevent its recurrence. KAB attempts to deal with the root cause of the problem—littering behavior. Changing attitudes and influencing behavior are brought about most effectively using a combination of methods:

Education – Education and awareness are bedrock tools of behavior change. Think broadly in your approach. Consider tie-ins with public education conducted through youth programs, civic clubs, Chambers of Commerce, businesses, and government agencies.

Ordinances – Changing public policy through codes, laws, or ordinances is one way to change behaviors around quality of life and environmental issues.

Enforcement – Consistent and effective enforcement of existing codes, laws, and ordinances helps change behavior and reinforce the commitment to a cleaner, greener community. Work closely with local law enforcement, and be sure citizens are aware of the laws.

Tools and Resources – This can include such tangible things as a litter pick up tools, sanitation collection vehicles, graffiti removal equipment, litter or ash receptacles, recycling bins, or a pocket ashtray. It also includes strategies that encourage individuals to make different long-term choices, blending knowledge from social marketing with behavior change tools.

What You Can Do to Prevent Litter

Changing a common behavior, like littering, starts with you. Each person must accept responsibility for their actions and influence the actions of others around them at home, at school, in your place of business, and in the community at large.

Every Individual

  • Set an example for others – especially family, co-workers, friends, and children – by using trash and/or recycling receptacles and not littering.
  • Always have a litter bag in your car.
  • If you are a smoker, carry and use a portable or pocket ashtray.
  • If you see litter, pick it up.


  • Carry and use a car litter bag. When these are full, empty them into a trash and/or recycling receptacle.
  • Use a car ashtray or portable ashtray to dispose of cigarette butts and lighting material.
  • Do not throw any litter out of vehicle windows.

Pet Owners

  • Pick up after your dog as you walk through your neighborhood. Use newspaper delivery bags, “scoopers”, or other easy-to-use methods to clean up after your pet.
  • Be sure to put pet waste in trash receptacles and not recycling bins.
  • Take responsibility for your pet and his/her actions.

Community Residents

  • Make sure your trash cans have lids that can be securely fastened or use bungee cords to hold them in place.
  • Secure all bags and use twine to secure loose trash for curbside trash collection.

Business Owners

  • Provide ash and trash receptacles at entrances, exits, loading docks, picnic areas as well as in parking lots and along walkways of your business. Remember, these should be placed at “transition points” or where people generally gather.
  • Assure easy access to dumpsters by employees and contractors. Check dumpsters daily to see that top and side doors are closed. This prevents scavengers from spreading trash on the ground.
  • Cover all open loads on trucks leaving your business. Encourage vendors and contractors to do the same.
  • Educate your employees about the importance of individual responsibility for a clean and safe working environment.

Event Organizers

  • Make your festival, fair, or any outdoor community events “waste-wise” or “litter free” from the initial planning stages of the event.
  • Place large trash and recycling receptacles near food venues and eating areas. Remember, a large event with a large number of attendees need large, well-marked receptacles.
  • If you place event volunteers nearby to help attendees find the receptacles as they need them, you will reduce clean up while educating people about recycling and proper waste disposal.