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Litter a persistent problem in Pennsylvania

Despite decades of public education and cleanups, and hours upon hours of volunteer time, litter remains a perennial problem in Pennsylvania. Sure, other states deal with litter, too. But, let’s be honest, the amount of litter that clutters our roads, streets and sidewalks is unsightly and unhealthy, and it makes our communities markedly less attractive. First impressions count, and families and businesses might be less inclined to plant roots here if they believe residents don’t take pride in or take responsibility for their surroundings.

Every fall, the state Department of Transportation dispatches cleanup crews around the state, targeting their efforts on removing litter along roads and highways where it is not safe for volunteers to work. It’s part of the $14 million that PennDOT spends every year on cleaning up after slobbish Pennsylvanians or boorish people passing through from elsewhere. Just think: the cost of removing fast-food wrappers, cigarette butts, plastic bags and all the other trash that people thoughtlessly toss away in the commonwealth roughly equals the cost of building two new elementary schools.

Yassmin Gramian, secretary of PennDOT, explained, “Every dollar we have to spend on litter cleanup is a dollar we cannot invest in our system. We are grateful for the work of our crews and volunteers, though what we really need is an end to littering.”

To further put the costs of litter into perspective, its presence in a community decreases property values by about 7%, according to a pricing model devised by the National Association of Home Builders. In addition, 40% of homeowners say that litter reduces a home’s value by 10% to 24%.

Then there’s the damage that litter inflicts on the environment, particularly when it ends up in streams and rivers. We might think that once litter is swept down a storm drain it’s no longer an issue. In due course, though, it will end up causing problems for marine and plant life and other animals once it flows into waterways.

“Most litter along the road isn’t going to decompose in our lifetime,” according to Patrick McDonnell, secretary of the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection. “If you saw it today, you’re likely to see it again the next time you pass by, still leaching, breaking into microplastics, creating hazards for people and wildlife, and diminishing our communities and landscape.”

Certainly, attitudes have changed toward litter over the decades, and that in and of itself is a sign of progress — but if you look along our roads, you’ll see they aren’t changing fast enough.

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