America’s Litter Report Card

KAB’s National Litter Study suggests debris found on U.S. roadways and waterways declined 54% in the past decade.

May 24, 2021

cigarette and e-cigarette litter

ALEXANDRIA, Va.—Keep America Beautiful (KAB) released the results of a new study on litter in America, which updates the previous 2009 study. The Keep America Beautiful 2020 National Litter Study provides a detailed understanding of the quantity, composition and sources of litter throughout the United States.

The study shows that progress has been made in reducing roadway litter in the last decade within several product categories like fast-food packaging, soft drink containers and construction debris.

Cigarette butts continue to be the single most littered item in the United States, although cigarette butt litter has declined dramatically since 2009. Plastic films, both general use films and food packaging films, such as candy wrappers or snack bags, represent the second and third most littered items.

Since KAB’s 2009 litter study, there is twice as much litter from alcohol beverage containers than non-alcohol beverage containers. Beer container litter is up 27% from 2009, with beer containers and single-serve wine and liquor containers (e.g., 50 ml minis and nips) ranking higher than any beverage product like soda, water, juice, tea, etc.

The study also provides the first national estimate of the scale and scope of personal protective equipment (PPE) like gloves and masks. During the COVID-19 pandemic, about 207 million pieces of PPE were littered across America’s roads and waterways: 45% of mask litter was discovered along waterways, while 68% of glove litter was discovered along waterways.

“This data will help inform our programs for years to come addressing both litter on the ground and the act of littering,” said Keep America Beautiful President and CEO Dr. Helen Lowman. “Our many diverse partners, our 700 affiliate organizations, and the millions of volunteers activated annually will use this data to work toward our vision that everyone in America lives in a beautiful community.”

In the past decade, KAB found that Americans are littering less—a 54% decrease in litter along U.S. roadways. In 2009, about 51.2 billion pieces of were found along roadways, compared with about 23.7 billion pieces of litter in 2020.

Opportunities for Retailers
The NACS report, “Convenience Store Industry’s Take on Trash,” highlights consumer perceptions and retailer observations about litter, trash and recycling at U.S. convenience stores. Key insights found that:

  • 41% of retailers say trash at the pump comes from customers cleaning out their cars
  • 43% of consumers would keep bottles and cans in their vehicle until they found a recycling bin
  • 53% of consumers toss their trash into an outside receptacle at the gas pump
  • 20% of convenience retailers say their recycling program fits their company’s values/mission

NACS partners with KAB to offer resources that convenience retailers can use to manage their litter and trash and was a sponsor of the 2020 National Litter Study:

  • NACS and KAB produced a report, “Guide to Reducing Litter, Managing Trash and Encouraging Recycling,” that provides quick and easy tips for convenience stores to improve their customers’ experience, help the environment and, ultimately, enhance their reputation and bottom line. It includes information from KAB’s 2009 litter study.   
  • As part of a joint initiative of KAB and Philip Morris USA, U.S.-based convenience retailers can request free litter stands to collect cigarette butts. Read more in this NACS Daily article or email for more information. 

To address bottle and can recycling, NACS and the Can Manufacturers Institute (CMI) developed “The Value of Can and Bottle Recycling.” The resource offers tips and suggestions for improving current practices, how to effectively communicate the goals of the program with staff and customers, as well as a checklist to help retailers reduce contamination in their recycling bins.

Last year NACS produced an online Sustainability Playbook. This robust resource highlights where retailers can take credit for initiatives that are doing well and identifies opportunities to do more. While this resource provides timeless guidance, it also can help businesses sustain themselves by:

  • Reducing costs
  • Growing their customer base
  • Creating efficiencies
  • Fostering a community spirit 

Recognizing that every business is at a different place in their sustainability journey, convenience retailers can use the Playbook as a guide for advancing areas most relevant to their business and consider how other areas could transform their business in the future.