Wash. litter study details billions of items, millions of pounds of waste per year

Sep 9, 2023, 11:32 AM | Updated: Sep 15, 2023, 5:28 pm

Trash is strewn along an Interstate 5 freeway on-ramp in Seattle....

Trash is strewn along an Interstate 5 freeway on-ramp in Seattle. (Photo: George Rose, Getty Images)

(Photo: George Rose, Getty Images)

The state of Washington’s first litter study in nearly 20 years has been completed and it found 37.8 million pounds of waste are littered each year. That’s comprised of nearly 7.1 billion items.

All of that waste translates to about 84 pieces of trash for each person or almost five pounds. That’s more than the 73 pieces identified from a 2020 national study done by nonprofit Keep America Beautiful.

The Washington State Department of Ecology worked with Seattle’s Cascadia Consulting Group to complete what the agency called a “comprehensive litter study” throughout 2022. The last similar study was completed in 2004.

Those involved collected litter from 182 randomly selected sites across the state, the study explained. Sites were categorized into five main groups: roadways, interchanges (on- and off-ramps), rest areas, parks and recreational areas. From there, they sorted the litter, counted the pieces, weighed the samples collected and estimated the yearly average pounds and pieces of litter statewide.

Of the 37.8 million pounds of waste nearly half, 18.5 million pounds, were found on roadways. The Washington study found an average of 8,112 pieces of litter per mile on Washington roads, whereas the national average is 5,714 pieces per mile, according to the Keep America Beautiful study.

“The volume of litter on our roadways really stuck out to me,” Department of Ecology litter prevention coordinator Amber Smith-Jones said to KIRO Newsradio. “The fact that our interstate highways are getting more than 73,000 pieces of litter per mile was a big deal because interstates are also the most difficult to clean. Litter pickup is dangerous work. It is expensive work.”

The picture does change when litter per acre is examined, as interchanges get the most pounds and pieces per year, and roadways get the fewest.

According to the study, the most common types of litter include plastic film wrapping for boxes, plastic mailing pouches, air pillows, shrink-wrap, and bubble wrap, metal beer cans and construction and demolition debris. But cigarette butts are the top tossed item, by a large margin.

“Cigarette butts are still the most commonly littered item, almost 9,000 cigarette butts per mile per year on our roadways,” Smith-Jones said.

Looking more at people’s litter habits

Smith-Jones says the study’s researchers interviewed people who admit to littering and find they don’t want trash to build up in their cars, so they toss it outside.

“They tell us that they throw things out of their window as a convenient way to keep things from building up in the car, basically to keep their car clean and they don’t have a car litter bag,” Smith-Jones said to KIRO Newsradio.

A considerable amount of litter ends up on Washington roads inadvertently as well.

“We also have a lot of accidental litter that’s happening because people aren’t properly securing their loads or cleaning out their truck beds,” Smith-Jones said.

Chokepoints with Chris Sullivan: Why do 25% of people still litter in the state of Washington?

Smith-Jones said most residents “do the right thing” when it comes to not littering, but “most” is still too few.

“According to our research, 75% of Washingtonians … and choose to not litter, Smith-Jones said. “But, the study really shows us that’s not enough.”

What can we do next?

The study reports that in 2022, the Department of Ecology and the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) spent almost $12 million cleaning up litter throughout the state. However, the nearly 7.4 million pounds of litter crews picked up was less than one-fifth of the of the litter that newly accumulate each year (37.8 million pounds) and less than one-fifth of the 43.2 million pounds of litter estimated to be currently on the ground.

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The study goes on to say in its “Recommendations” section that since “studies show that people are more likely to litter if there is already litter on the ground, cleanup efforts are crucial to both reducing and preventing litter.”

But cleanup efforts by themselves can’t fix Washington’s litter problem.

“Behavior change campaigns, improved collection infrastructure, targeted legislation, and new funding sources are all necessary to stop litter at its source,” the study says.

The results from the litter study were released earlier this summer, but the Department of Ecology is increasing awareness of the state’s litter problem this month with its We Keep WA Litter Free prevention campaign. This includes an event Thursday at Seattle Center that featured Seattle Kraken player Yanni Gourde encouraging Washingtonians to stop litter at its source and shooting litter into a trash can with a hockey stick.

The campaign also also features statewide advertising and car litter bag giveaways in local grocery stores.

Contributing: Diane Duthweiler, KIRO Newsradio

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Wash. litter study details billions of items, millions of pounds of waste per year