Litter, which could include anything from cigarette butts and food wrappers to plastic water bottles, is piling up along roadways and waterways nationwide. Litter is degrading communities across the United States. Burns & McDonnell is working with Keep America Beautiful (KAB) to conduct a national litter study, which the organization plans to use to support efforts to reduce litter with the ultimate goal of ending litter in America.

A KAB study was completed in 2009 to gather quantifiable litter data, but after a decade new research needs to be gathered to maintain current data. The upcoming study will expand on the data collected and enhance the protocol and tools utilized for collection and evaluation of information.  

The first phase of the study will consist of two surveys researching national public attitude and the financial impact of litter. For the public attitude survey, individuals will be asked a range of questions on the prevalence of litter, general awareness of the effects of littering, known consequences from littering, knowledge of current anti-littering campaigns and general opinions on the issue. As part of the financial impact of litter survey, businesses and other entities will be asked about the direct costs that come with removing litter such as street sweeping and clean-up. The survey will also ask about indirect costs such as any negative impact on economic development and local property values. 

In the second phase, professional teams will be sent to communities across the United States to gather data on how much quantifiable litter exists on roadways and in public spaces. Teams will also research the composition and location of litter, as well as any potential factors that could lead to additional litter. The data will be extrapolated to establish a national estimate of how widespread the issue is and to determine the cost of littering in America.

While eliminating litter across the country may sound like a lofty goal, tailoring solutions for each impacted region increases the chance of success. Each community may face litter problems for a variety of reasons like whether an area is landscaped, the type of businesses nearby, the walkability of an area, or if there are public litter cans nearby. It’s necessary to examine the causes driving higher littering rates in some areas for future prevention.

Keep Pennsylvania Beautiful, the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection and the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation partnered together to utilize the enhanced protocol and tools developed by Burns & McDonnell as part of the KAB national study.

Results from the KAB study have the potential to affect policy by influencing local lawmakers to make more room in the budget for litter education and outreach and enforcement.

The nationwide study is expected to start this fall. It could inspire litter studies like the one underway in Pennsylvania.


Research and data are critical in the support of well-crafted environmental policies, including those that govern recycling as well as littering.

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