March 26, 2021

The Trouble with Trash

Buds are blooming, grass is greening … and trash is blowing. No city official likes to see litter in his or her city. It gives the wrong impression, is bad for business and is just plain unsightly. But did you know that litter and trash can even reduce perceived property values in neighborhoods (by thousands of dollars)? 

Besides being an eyesore, careless littering is a hazard to health, wildlife and the environment. And as the country continues to deal with the pandemic, litter is potentially more dangerous than ever. COVID-related waste (including PPE) should be disposed of properly, but many face masks are winding up on streets, parks and streets. All of this means that litter comes at a high cost to cities. 

The indirect cost of litter is hard to calculate but there has been some research that suggests litter impacts property values. Data from the US National Association of Home Builders, using statistics from the American Housing Survey found that a newly built house in a southern central US city costing $173,530 was reduced in value to $162,911 (about 6 %) by trash or litter nearby. Abandoned buildings, bad roads and other neighborhood features also reduced house prices by similar amounts. 

The state’s criminal statute (512.070) on littering is through the local prosecutor. Any fine goes to the state and not the city. If a city enforces under either a local nuisance or code enforcement, this is a civil enforcement and any fine and lien for abatement assessed would go to the city.

In Kentucky, county officials oversee inmate and community services trash collection. While the Kentucky Department of Transportation operates the Adopt-a-Highway program, it’s worth checking out. They have dates set for their Spring Clean (April) and Summer Scrub (June) events. 

So with limited budgets, little oversight and COVID -19 as an ongoing concern, what’s a city to do? 

Some cities are finding ways. Especially those with tourism-dependent economies see litter as an issue that must be addressed. 

In South Carolina, for example, the Town of Batesburg-Leesville, (population 5,600) hired part-time employees to pick up roadside trash and within the city limits. Given the volume, the city quickly decided to hire someone to work about 20 hours a week year-round, picking up trash. Like many other cities across the country, Batesburg-Leesville also does an annual spring cleanup with more than 200 volunteers. 

It’s important to remember that before embarking on anything, you need to talk with your city’s attorney, risk manager/safety trainer and public works/sanitation staff. Also contact your city’s insurance carrier before organizing any type of event or the use of volunteers.

The larger City of Rock Hill, South Carolina is banking on community pride as a solution. That city works closely with the county and also launched a Rock Hill Clean & Green Board which keeps a steady flow of volunteers picking up trash. The city provides equipment, such as bags, gloves, safety vests and trash grabbers, to both groups. Much like a tree board or beautification committee, Rock Hill’s Clean & Green is a city-sponsored organization consisting of a 15-member all-volunteer board appointed by city council.

If your city contracts with a company for its trash pickup, you could also reach out to them for ideas and possible resources. In addition, some for-profit companies work directly with established groups like Keep America Beautiful on local events.

Keep America Beautiful (KAB), a community improvement nonprofit organization dedicated to beautification, is a good place to get ideas. The organization is driven by more than 650 state and local affiliates, millions of volunteers, and the support of corporate partners, social and civic service organizations, academia, municipalities, and government officials. There are Kentucky KAB affiliate groups including in Lexington and Louisville, in addition to surrounding states. 

The 23rd annual Keep America Beautiful Great American Cleanup is March 20-June 20. It is a nationwide litter collection. This year, the event organizers have been provided clear guidance to ensure that volunteer health is the first priority. All local cleanups should adhere to guidelines from federal, state, and local public health officials so timely and accurate information can guide safe and appropriate activities in each location.

KAB’s TrashDash events involve “plogging,” a recent environmental fitness craze that integrates the collection of litter with a running/ jogging workout. The official definition of plogging is a blend of the Swedish phrase ‘plocka upp’ (meaning ‘pick up’) and ‘jogging.’ It debuted in Sweden in 2016 and made its way to the United States in 2018. It is actually a fun way to pick up trash. Learn more about TrashDash here. 

In whatever you do, make public education part of the process - and include your schools. To motivate business and property owners to clean up, work with your local chamber of commerce to create a hot-spot map. Think outside the box. And it bears repeating that in all efforts, safety is key.

The trash problem is not new, but it is an issue for Kentucky’s waterways, natural resources, neighborhoods and communities. Litter contributes to the first and lasting impressions your city leaves on visitors, residents and businesses. If cities take steps to address litter, in the process, it can also educate the public as to the value of sanitation – one of the many daily services that cities provide.