What is Litter?

    Litter is human-generated waste that is discarded in an inappropriate place, or improperly stored trash which has escaped from its container. Litter is harmful to our natural environment and an aesthetic blemish to our cities.

    Once litter is in our environment, it can be there for a long time. A material’s rate of biodegradation is the rate at which a material’s chemical composition breaks down in a physiological environment. Cigarette butts, the most common litter, contain 4000 chemicals and takes up to 12 years to break down. Here are a few other materials you may find littered around where you live, and the negative impact this has on your home:




Keep America Beautiful Announces Results of Nation's Largest Study of Litter and Littering BehaviorDecember 2009

Despite Significant Improvements Over the Past 40 Years...Litter Remains a Significant and Costly Problem.

WASHINGTON– National nonprofit Keep America Beautiful( has announced the results of the largest litter study ever conducted in the U.S. The study identifies and dissects the causes, effects and costs of litter in America, and is the first major national survey of litter in the U.S. in 40 years.

Behavioral studies observed nearly 10,000 individuals in 130 locations in 10 states.  Quantitative surveys measured roadway litter in Geographic Information System-selected samplings of 45 metropolitan areas nationwide, as well as 180 non-roadway sample locations.

"Our research clearly shows that while major progress has been made in reducing litter, more remains to be done,” said Matthew M. McKenna, former president and CEO of Keep America Beautiful, Inc. “By combining strong, targeted public education and outreach with a better infrastructure of trash, ash and recycling receptacles, communities can reduce litter and its costly impact.” 

    •    In the past 40 years, since 1968, the amount of litter in America has decreased by 61% nationwide, a change attributed to aggressive, long-term public education and cleanup programs. Yet litter remains a costly and often underestimated problem for the environment and quality of life.
    •    Litter conservatively costs our nation $11.5 billion per year. These are direct costs, including cleanup and prevention programs, and are carried largely by businesses and taxpayers. Not included in this figure are significant indirect costs:

    ◦    Decreased property values. 93% of homeowners, 55% of real estate agents and 90% of property appraisers surveyed stated that a littered neighborhood would decrease their assessment of a home’s value
    ◦    "Opportunity Costs” such as decreased commerce and tourism in blighted areas
    ◦    Health effects and related costs of littered environments

    •    The study concludes that at least 51.2 billion pieces of litter are left on roadways in the U.S.; an average of 6,729 pieces of litter per mile.
    •    Cigarette butts comprise 38% of all items littered on the highways, streets, parks and playgrounds (in urban, suburban and rural areas of America).
    •    People matter. Most littering observed in the study -- 81%-- was committed “with intent” by the individual, and was mainly attributable to lack of individual awareness or sense of obligation. The study showed that 17% of all observed disposals were classified as “improper” or littering.
    •    Context matters. 15% of all littering can be attributed to context. The strongest contextual contributor to littering is the prevalence of existing litter. Other contextual variables affecting litter are the number of trash or ash receptacles present, and the distance between receptacles.
    •    Age matters. Older individuals (30 and over) littered less than younger individuals, but gender was surprisingly not related to litter rates.

    •    Education and cleanups work. Clearly, intense education and cleanup efforts have been the primary contributors to the significant decrease in litter over the past 40 years.
    •    More receptacles work. Distance to receptacles is a strong predictor of littering behavior.
    •    More recycling infrastructure is needed.  Only 12% of public spaces surveyed had recycling receptacles.
    •    Funding is needed. Corporations, foundations and government should all be taking the lead in funding  and sponsoring education programs, volunteer programs and infrastructure. As with most societal issues, prevention is far less costly than remediation.

Keep America Beautiful commissioned this series of studies in 2008 and 2009 with funding from Philip Morris USA, an Altria Company. Behavioral research was conducted by Action Research, Inc., led by Wes Schultz, Professor of Psychology at California State University. The visible litter and litter cost study was conducted by Mid Atlantic Solid Waste Consultants, LLC, led by Steven Stein and John Culbertson.



What You Can Do to Fight Litter:

 Keep Oklahoma Beautiful offers many different programs in which you can participate that specifically target litter prevention and community cleanups!

The Great American Cleanup: This event, which takes place each spring, is in direct affiliation with Keep America Beautiful, and provides communities with the tools they need to make a real impact around town. Through Keep Oklahoma Beautiful, your group can register and apply for a community grant of $250 to help offset costs of the cleanup!

The ODOT Trash OffSponsored by the Oklahoma Department of Transportation, this cleanup campaign coincides with the Great American Cleanup. You can get free supplies like trash bags, all you need to do is pick a place to beautify!


Rate of Biodegradation

Time It Takes

 Cotton Rings
 1-5 months

 Paper 2-5 months

 Rope 3-14 months

 Orange Peels
 6 months

 Wool Socks
 1-5 years

 Cigarette Butts
 1-12 years

 Plastic Coated Paper Cartons
 5 years

 Plastic Bags
 10-20 years

 Leather Shoes
 25-40 years

 Nylon Fabric
 30-40 years

 Tin Cans
 50-100 years

 Aluminum Cans
 80-100 years

 Plastic 6-Pack Holder Rings
 450 years

 Glass Bottles
 1 million years

 Plastic Bottles


For more tips and ideas for fighting and preventing litter, check out our Get Beautiful section!