Impacts of Litter in Our Waterways

Litter aricle

By: Kadafi El-Kardah, Pennsylvania Environmental Council

Have you ever wondered how litter impacts the quality of our local waterways and neighborhoods?  Do you know where rainwater goes after entering storm drains in our streets, or what happens to the trash and debris it carries? More importantly, do you know the ways that you can help minimize litter while protecting our waterways and sources of drinking water? 

Litter comes in a variety of shapes and sizes and, if left unattended, accumulates on the land. It travels by wind and by rainwater runoff, and can end up in surprising places. Unfortunately, improperly disposed consumer waste – chiefly bottles, bags, and cigarette butts – is a common sight along our sidewalks, streets, and parking lots. If you’ve been out for a walk recently, you may also have noticed an increase in a particular type of litter: disposable face masks and gloves. Used PPE is being discarded on sidewalks, streets, and parking lots, adding to Philadelphia’s existing litter problem. 

How does all of this litter affect our neighborhoods? Most of us understand intuitively, and numerous studies have borne out, that litter depresses real estate values and can deter new businesses from opening in a neighborhood. But the impact doesn’t stop there. According to a National Geographic report, more than 40 percent of plastic is used only once before it is thrown away. These plastics linger in the environment for a long time, inhibiting plant growth and otherwise disrupting ecosystems. Even worse, over time they break down into smaller particles called microplastics, which can be ingested by both animals and people. 

It would be bad enough if these impacts were confined to the land. But during a storm, rain washes trash, chemicals, and any other improperly disposed material into storm drains. From there, the polluted water makes its way into nearby creeks and streams before ultimately draining into the Delaware and Schuylkill rivers – the source of our drinking water.

The best way to head off these negatives impacts is at the source: by preventing our trash from becoming litter in the first place. A statewide study by Keep Pennsylvania Beautiful and Burns & McDonnell reported that Philadelphia spends more than $48 million a year on cleanup, education, enforcement, and efforts to prevent illegal dumping. Nearly 90 percent of that sum goes to cleanup projects, with only about 10 percent left for preventative measures.


Focusing on prevention will help reduce the cost and boost the overall impact of our anti-litter efforts. That’s why it’s important that we all do our part as residents, and not rely on the City and state to do everything alone. We ALL can play a role in keeping our streets clean and keeping litter out of our waterways:

Fasten the lids on trash and recycling receptacles. If not contained, light-weight materials such as newspapers, plastic bags, bottles can be easily picked up by the wind and scattered over your street or driveway. Philadelphians who don’t have a recycling receptacle with a lid, can request one by calling 311. Avoid putting loose trash into your outdoor trash receptacle; instead, use garbage bags for your loose materials. 

Reduce your paper waste. If you don’t want circulars such as food menus and advertisements left on your property, you can register your property with the Department of Licenses and Inspections (L&I). After registering, you will be mailed a circular-free property decal. The decal lets advertisers know not to leave ads on your property. For more information about the decal or to request an application, contact (215) 686-2414.

Participate in a cleanup in your neighborhood. Picking up litter in the neighborhood is a good way to reduce the amount of trash washing into our storm drains. The City holds annual cleanups in the spring and fall, but these are not the only opportunities to get involved! For more information about cleanups in your area, call 311 to find out your district’s Clean Block Officer

Organize your own cleanup.  The Community Life Improvement Program (CLIP) loans tools and supplies to residents that are interested in cleaning up their neighborhood. To request cleanup supplies, contact CLIP at 215-685-9558. The City’s Litter Index is a great tool for visualizing litter hotspots in your neighborhood.

Help Spread the Word. Educate your friends and family about the impact of trash in our waterways. Residents can mark storm drains with decals informing pedestrians about the link between storm drains and creeks, and reminding them that nothing should be pushed or swept into the drain.  To request supplies, contact the Philadelphia Water Department.

Report issues to 311. The City’s 311 hotline can help you report quality-of-life issues in the city. This includes illegal dumping, graffiti, and other problems that may require action by the City. You can simply dial 311, download the app, or use their online reporting form.   

Education and enforcement are key when looking to prevent or reduce litter. Let’s work together to improve the quality of our neighborhoods and keep litter out of the water.


About the Author: Kadafi El-Kardah is the Community Engagement Specialist at the Pennsylvania Environmental Council (PEC). PEC protects and restores the natural and built environments through innovation, collaboration, education, and advocacy. Through a partnership with the Philadelphia Water Department, PEC is raising awareness of the effects of water pollution via stormwater runoff. For more information, visit their stormwater page at .

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