Scott MacHenry
Staff Writer

A major issue facing the state of Pennsylvania is litter and roadside trash. Many of the state’s major roads are strewn with trash, with more litter in other areas such as parks, hiking trails, and along the banks of the Conestoga River. Littering has many environmental consequences: Wildlife habitats can be altered or destroyed, contaminates and other toxic matter can pollute soil and water, and trash ingestion and entanglement are serious threats to wildlife. There are also financial ramifications, as the state of Pennsylvania spends over $14 million a year cleaning up roadside trash alone, according to the York Daily Record.

In late 2019, the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation and Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection presented results of a survey they conducted earlier in the year to legislators, business leaders, and community members. The survey was two-fold; a phone survey with 500 residents, and field teams conducting litter counts in 180 locations statewide. Approximately 96 percent of Pa. residents said littering was a problem, while the field teams estimated that 500 million pieces of litter were on state roads. The Pa. DEP reported that, “the most common items are cigarette butts and plastics, such as plastic food packaging, bottles, and bags. Motorists and pedestrians are leading litterers, followed by improperly secured truck loads.” 

At that meeting, the Pennsylvania DEP Secretary, Patrick McDonnell, spoke on this growing issue. “[Littering] presents health hazards, it contaminates the soil and water, and cleaning it up is costly to the Commonwealth and taxpayers. DEP has funded annual community and illegal dump site clean-ups around the state for over two decades. Thanks to these volunteer events, millions of pounds of litter have been removed from our land and water, but trash is accumulating faster than anyone can keep up with,” he said.

While the task to clean up Pennsylvania may seem insurmountable, every single person can individually help reduce litter. You can properly separate recyclables from trash at your home. You can place a trash bag in your car or carry one with you on a hike. However, if you are interested in actively making a difference beyond your home, there are other ways to get involved. 

Adopt a Highway is a prominent organization dedicated to combating the spread of litter and roadside trash. They have a partnership with PennDOT and rely on volunteers to continue cleaning roadways. Volunteers can select any two-mile roadway to clean and in exchange, PennDOT provides trash bags, safety vests, gloves, and notifies state police of all events. As of now, 3,914 volunteers have adopted and cleaned 8,700 miles, per PennDOT records. But there is still so much more to be accomplished, since Pennsylvania has 118,226 miles of public roads.

If volunteering isn’t your thing, there is still a way to raise awareness of Pennsylvania’s littering issue. There is a bill proposal from Democratic state lawmakers that addresses the environmental harm of littering. The legislation, led by Representative Tim Briggs of Montgomery County, is called “Zero Waste PA.” The legislative plan combats environmental problems caused by “throwaway” society, while also focusing on state recycling programs.  Some of the bills in this package want to raise financial penalties for illegally dumping garbage, while others target the production of plastics, requiring that producers of plastic packaging cannot sell or distribute in Pennsylvania unless they are part of a recycling program to take it back.

Unfortunately, the proposal is held up in legislative gridlock. Republicans control the Pennsylvania House of Representatives and they likely won’t vote to further this bill package written by state Democrats. The easiest way to enact change is at the local level, so getting the bill passed would be a major step toward reducing litter and roadside trash. To make your voice heard, you can contact your district representative and ask them to support “Zero Waste PA,” or simply tag them on Twitter in a tweet advocating for environmental justice and litter reduction in Pennsylvania. 

So much action needs to be taken to truly make an impact in reducing waste tossed into the environment; yet every single person can make a difference. Whether through volunteering your time or calling on legislators to ensure your personal trash is properly disposed of, there are ways to help. It’s high time to clean up our state, not only to make it look beautiful, but to lessen environmental harm. I’m calling on everyone who reads this to consider how they can make a difference. As Adopt a Highway puts it, “every litter bit counts.”