Littering: It's still a big problem in Tennessee

Brandon Paykamian • Updated Jan 27, 2018 at 11:01 PM

Officials say littering has remained a big problem in Tennessee and its municipalities — costing local and state governments millions every year.

In a recent survey conducted by the Tennessee Department of Transportation, nearly 30 percent of Tennesseans reported knowingly littering. With this in mind, Department of Transportation spokesman Mark Nagi said increasing awareness about the laws and the environmental impact of littering is an important part of curbing the problem.

At the very least, Nagi hopes that Tennesseans’ awareness on littering laws will help deter people from throwing trash on the ground throughout the state.

“Our roadside litter survey completed last year revealed that there are 15 million pieces of litter on Tennessee roadsides at any one moment. We completed that survey as a part of our efforts to implement the new Nobody Trashes Tennessee campaign,” Nagi said. “Five pounds or less littering receives a $50 fine. As the weight of the litter goes up so does the fine and community service required. With 10 pounds or more, it is considered aggravated criminal littering and the fine is $2,500. A second or third offense at that level takes it up to a Class E felony. Commercial dumping carries stricter penalties and the second offense comes with jail time.

“TDOT is partnering with Keep Tennessee Beautiful to work with law enforcement and district attorney’s offices to increase awareness of Tennessee litter laws and to encourage increased enforcement. Our research shows that the only thing that will stop some folks from littering is the threat of fines and enforcement.”

Despite the threat of fines, littering remains a huge problem throughout the state, costing taxpayers more than $15 million for clean-up. These costs don’t include what each municipality has to pay to manage the problem. Though Johnson City only issued three citations last year, nearly $45,000 was spent on clean-up in 2017, according to officials. 

Johnson City Parks and Recreation Director James Ellis said it could take more than laws to stop litter. At parks across Johnson City, he said staff works daily to pick up debris and trash, but he said he believes excessive littering hasn’t been a huge issue in local parks recently, due to the courtesy of many park-goers and a culture of personal responsibility — something he said he’d also like to see on Tennessee’s roadways.

“I really think for the amount our parks are used, litter is not a big concern,” he said. “As far as litter and cleanliness, for a park system our size, I think we’re very fortunate.”

After large events at public parks, he said site staff and female inmates from the Johnson City Detention Facility work to clean the parks by the next day.

“If there is a concentrated effort to correct it, it's less likely to come back, and if (littering) becomes part of the culture, people start adding to it and you have a big problem on your hands,” Ellis said.

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