Do You Pick Up Litter? 152 Pieces a Year Can Temporarily Make the US Litter-Free

A study found that 90% of Americans feel litter is a problem where they live.

littered paper coffee cup

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Used face masks. Crumpled soda cans. Handyman flyers.

My husband and I see bits and pieces of litter on our regular walks around the suburbs. They may have been tossed out a car window, fallen from a backpack, or flown off a mailbox.

The other day, we noticed lots of paper all around a roundabout near our house. Because it had recently poured, soggy paper plastered the road and the sidewalks. So we peeled it up and collected it. We found a mangled clipboard where it likely originated, a notebook, and lots of business paperwork.

We were only about a mile from home, so we took it back with us and called the company whose name was all over the documents. The worker who lost it is swinging by this morning to pick it up. I’m not sure how helpful the soggy mess will be, and he definitely needs to buy a new clipboard.

I didn’t count what we collected, but there were dozens of items. It’s a start, but nowhere near the 152 items that each of us should pick up each year.

The Keep America Beautiful (KAB) organization says that’s how much each American needs to collect to make the country litter-free. Well, until someone litters again.

The 2020 Keep America Beautiful Litter Study found that although 90% of Americans feel litter is a problem where they live, roadside litter is down 54% over the past decade. But there are still about 50 billion pieces of litter on the ground in the U.S.

“When accounting for the U.S. population, 50 billion pieces of litter equate to 152 pieces of litter for every U.S. resident,” the study authors write. “This is a large number but is something to which individuals can relate. People can visualize 152 pieces of litter where they live, and they can begin to see that the litter problem can be solved.”

Taking a Deep Dive into Litter

I have a friend who is an avid runner and walker. She often posts photos of all the trash she collects on her outings in order to raise awareness. There are candy wrappers and fast food bags, plastic gadgets, and old socks.

According to the KAB organization, of the billions of pieces of litter, about 88% is four inches or smaller. But larger trash still accounts for about 6 billion pieces.

The most-littered item in the U.S. is cigarette butts, although that type of trash has dropped significantly since 2009. After butts, the most-littered items include plastic films from things like candy wrappers and snack bags.

There’s twice as much litter from alcoholic drink containers as from non-alcoholic ones. Litter from beer containers is up 27% from 2009.

Land vs. Water

With single-use plastic bottles and other garbage washed up along the shores of rivers, lakes, and oceans, the study found there’s more litter along waterways (25.9 billion pieces) than along roadways (23.7 billion pieces).

At the time of the study (in the early stages of the pandemic), researchers estimated that approximately 207 million pieces of PPE (personal protective equipment) gloves and masks could be found across roads and waterways in the U.S. That’s about the same as litter from plastic straws.

Litter made out of plastic has decreased through the years less than litter from other types of materials. In the study, plastic litter makes up 38.6% of all litter across both roadways and waterways.

About 15.2% of litter is paper, like what we found, and the majority of it is along roadways.

That’s what we often find in the driveway and along the street: flyers for people offering home services, receipts, and paper bags.

Litterati is an app you can use to enter information about the type and location of litter you collect. The database helps track litter and can lead to more effective solutions including policy and package design.

We picked up these recent piles of litter probably because there was so much of it and it was impossible to miss. But we’ve often walked past other trash without always collecting it and I regret that.

I think sometimes we tend to look up at the trees and the birds and try to ignore any ugliness down below. But the only way to keep things beautiful is to actually get your hands dirty.

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