500 Million Pieces of Trash Cover This State's Roads

One of America’s largest states by population has roads littered with items that people have thrown away. The litter ranges from cigarette butts to bottles and aluminum cans. Researchers say they have little hope the problem will get better soon.

The nonprofit Keep Pennsylvania Beautiful had field teams visit 180 locations to examine trash next to roads. The number was extrapolated to get a total of 500 million pieces of litter along the state’s roads, both rural and urban. Thirty-seven of the items were cigarettes. Another 30% were items made of plastic. Plastic items could take decades or even centuries to decompose.

The survey looked at 83 types of garbage.

The solutions to the problem are not specific at all, which means that clean-ups could be difficult to nearly impossible to manage. Shannon Reiter, president of Keep Pennsylvania Beautiful, commented, “We believe understanding the scope of the problem is critical to influence change in behaviors, whether it be through public education or public policy.” It may raise awareness but is not a roadmap for solutions.

States have recognized the importance of recycling and have been working to promote it for years. Did you know that recycling 15 glass bottles saves enough energy to power an air conditioner for an hour or a laptop for more than a day? This is what each state pays its residents to recycle.

The organization pointed out that the litter comes with high costs for governments. Leaders in several cities, which included Pittsburgh and Philadelphia, said the cost to pick up all the litter is and would be very high, without specifying numbers. That may be because the problem is so widespread that attaching a number to it would be impossible.

Efforts to clean up litter in the United States, particularly on roads, are not new. The Keep America Beautiful campaign was launched in 1953 to cut down a liter and encourage recycling, long before recycling was popular. The private sector, nonprofits and some local governments supported the organization. It received huge exposure when it ran print and TV ads in 1971 that showed an Indian named Iron Eyes Cody who was crying. The tag line on the ad was “Get Involved Now: Pollution Hurts All of Us.” The media donated the time and space.

While it may not be scientific or statistically correct to multiply the Pennsylvania numbers to extend them to the entire country, it is safe to say that roadside litter nationwide has to be well into the billions of items. And while the numbers are shocking, the U.S. does not generate the most trash per person — these are the biggest producers of waste in the world.