A radical idea to reduce litter: Stop traffic and make fuming motorists watch it being picked up

In 2018, Allentown spent about $2.5 million on litter abatement. Nine of the largest cities in Pennsylvania spent a combined $54.6 million, with the state spending another $13 million.

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There are other people just as disgusted with litter as I am, and they have ideas for how to make Pennsylvania look less trashy.

I heard from them after I wrote about how much it costs taxpayers to clean up after the pigs who don’t know what garbage cans are for.

In 2018, Allentown spent about $2.5 million on litter abatement. Nine of the largest cities in Pennsylvania spent a combined $54.6 million, with the state spending another $13 million. Imagine how many police officers could be hired with that money, or how much good it would do in public schools.

More than 502 million pieces of trash were found along roads in 180 locations during a survey by Keep Pennsylvania Beautiful and two state departments. More than a third of the trash was cigarette butts.

Reader Diane Halasz of Palmer Township told me in an email, “In the summer of 2018, I drove through 22 states, through capitol cities and small towns, on highways and state and county rounds, and the state with the worst visible problem with litter was Pennsylvania.”

Here is what she and other readers suggested we do about the problem.

Increase fines

“Out west, the fines for littering were in the $1,000 range, not $300 as in PA,” Halasz said.

Other readers agree that higher fines would help.

“I’m not a curmudgeon. But, I can’t tell you enough how it irritates me that people throw their cigarette butts wherever,” a Phillipsburg man wrote me. “A few highly publicized, high $$$ tickets ‘may’ convince the scofflaws to dispose of their butts properly. But, I suppose they don’t consider it littering or more likely don’t give it a second thought.”

Pennsylvania changed its littering law in 2018 to require offenders to pick up trash in addition to paying a fine. The change was authored by Sen. Mario Scavello, R-Monroe.

First-time offenders must pick up for five and 30 hours, in addition to a fine of $50 to $300. For repeat offenders, penalties increase to 30 to 100 hours of pick-up duty, plus a fine of $300 to $1,000.

I couldn’t obtain data about how many lowlifes had been forced by a judge into the demeaning task of gathering garbage. There have been some, Scavello’s office said.

Another reader suggested raising the fine to $2,000 and allowing anyone who reports a violator to receive half of it as a reward.

Better trash collection

“I see more litter in my neighborhood coming after trash and recycling nights,” wrote Mike Schware of Allentown. “If you’ve ever watched the trash crews in Allentown, they’re hustling along to stay on their route, but don’t seem too concerned about anything that they drop between the curb and the trash truck.

“I don’t like to complain about the guys doing the collection since they work hard doing a tough job, but they could do better and what they drop adds up. The wind also blows trash and recycling from the curb if homeowners don’t secure it properly.

“Another culprit is the blue trash bins the city has out. They’re great, but the city doesn’t empty them as often as they used to. So animals end up getting in there and pulling stuff out, or the wind blows the more lightweight items out of the bins.”

Reinstate litter reporting hotline

Dick Jones of Bethlehem wrote a letter to the editor lamenting the loss of a state hotline where the public could report litterbugs.

“My office was in Souderton and I had to drive through Quakertown on Route 309 with nine traffic lights, and I would call it at least once each day to report drivers throwing cigarette butts out their windows,” Jones wrote. “I was told by the agent that they would send a notice to the violator the first time they were caught, with a threat of citation, and the second time it would include the citation.

“Apparently, this did little to solve the problem, as the state suspended the service at some point.”

Perhaps the line should be reinstated, Jones said.

PennDOT told me it has no plans to do that. Spokeswoman Jan Huzvar said the hotline was ended in 2005 because the department “could not measure or see any appreciable results.”

The state is working on the problem in other ways. The litter count and cost study I wrote about is being used to create a plan that includes placement of more trash cans; more recycling opportunities; teaching kids not to litter; and incentives and enforcement.

Bottle deposits

One incentive Halasz suggests is allowing people to return plastic and glass bottles for a deposit. If bottles had value, she surmises, fewer people would discard them.

Ten states have deposits, ranging from two cents to 15 cents for plastic, glass and metal containers, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Legislation has been introduced in Pennsylvania to create a deposit system, but both bills have languished in committees with no attention since they were introduced last year.

And my favorite idea …

If you want people to stop littering, Halasz believes, you have to get their attention.

“Perhaps people will stop littering when it affects them personally, like frequent lane closures to pick up the litter on I-78, Routes 22 and 33, and other major roads,” she said.

Morning Call columnist Paul Muschick can be reached at 610-820-6582 or paul.muschick@mcall.com