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Pennsylvania has 500 million pieces of litter on roads, and it’s costing taxpayers

Pennsylvania officials say the keystone state has a litter problem, with an estimated 500 million pieces of trash on roadways costing $14 million a year to clean up, and a new survey says residents agree something needs to be done.

A plastic bag litters the street in Philadelphia.
A plastic bag litters the street in Philadelphia.Read moreMichael Bryant / File Photograph

Pennsylvania officials say the Keystone State has a big litter problem, with an estimated 500 million pieces of trash on roadways costing more than $14 million annually to clean up.

A new survey shows residents agree: There’s a problem and something needs to be done.

So, the state Departments of Environmental Protection (DEP) and Transportation (PennDot) announced an initiative Thursday to reduce littering. The agencies are partnering with Keep Pennsylvania Beautiful.

» READ MORE: Miles of trash on the Delaware River stymie cleanup efforts

The survey, the first statewide litter study in more than two decades, was presented at a meeting of 125 local government, legislative, business, and community organizations at a summit on litter at the Hilton Harrisburg hotel.

“Pennsylvania has a littering problem," DEP Secretary Patrick McDonnell said in a news release. "Trash lines many of our roads and neighborhood streets. Hillsides and streambanks are strewn with tires and other garbage illegally dumped.”

McDonnell said the trash is not only unsightly but also contaminates soil and water. Taxpayers ultimately pay to clean it up.

Despite millions in tax dollars and thousands of volunteers, "trash is accumulating faster than anyone can keep up with,” McDonnell said.

The initiative, still in its formative stages, hopes better data can help.

Officials conducted a phone survey of 500 residents in 2018 and 2019 and asked their views on litter. More than 96% of respondents said improperly disposed-of trash was a problem.

Separately, teams were sent to 180 locations around the state to count litter. From that, they estimated that a half-billion pieces of litter are strewn across roads statewide.

The most common trash: cigarette butts and plastics. Plastics included food packaging, bottles, and bags.

The field survey found that drivers throwing trash out their windows and pedestrians flinging waste as they go are the leading litterers, followed by passing trucks that shed materials that aren’t properly secured.

Transportation Secretary Leslie S. Richards said the “enormous amount of resources spent on cleanup means there’s less funding available for improving our roads and bridges.”

“Cleanup,” Richards said, “is not a sustainable strategy.”

A major goal of the initiative will be to help change behavior through education.

Representatives from Philadelphia, Allentown, Harrisburg, and Pittsburgh attended the meeting, all expressing alarm at the high cost of tackling litter.

Philadelphia has its own litter index that’s mapped down to the neighborhood level to show conditions on streets, city property, schools, and vacant lots.

Officials use the index to identify areas most blighted by trash. The city has a pilot street cleaning program, which began in the spring in six neighborhoods and uses leaf blowers so residents do not need to move their cars.

Mayor Jim Kenney’s administration has also brought mechanical sweeping back to some neighborhoods. The program will continue through November, after which city officials will decide whether to continue the sweeping and expand to other neighborhoods.

Members of the statewide initiative plan to release a report on their conclusions about the litter problem, as well as more data from the study, by early 2020.