Paul Muschick: You may be shocked to learn how much Pennsylvania (and Allentown) spend on litterbugs

Cigarette butts aren't hard to find in Allentown. A lot of smokers think sidewalks are ashtrays.

The Morning Call – It’s been a while since I’ve fumed about the pigs who toss cigarette butts from their cars. Now I have another reason to. I got a peek at how much those criminals and other litterbugs are costing us.

In 2018, Allentown spent about $2.5 million on litter abatement. That includes street sweeping; picking up trash bags, furniture and other items that are dumped in empty lots and wooded areas; and organizing community clean-ups.

Nine of the largest cities in Pennsylvania spent a combined $54.6 million, with the state spending another $13 million.

The figures are part of the first comprehensive look at Pennsylvania’s litter problem, with research by Keep Pennsylvania Beautiful and the state departments of environmental protection and transportation.

That money could be spent hiring more cops, paving more roads, updating more parks. But instead, it’s being spent to clean up after miscreants who are too lazy to walk a few feet to a trash can, or keep their butts, drink containers and other garbage in their cars until they get home.

Researchers found more than 502 million pieces of trash along roads in 180 locations. More than a third of the trash was cigarette butts.

I’m not sure if they counted in downtown Allentown, but based on what I saw on a brief walk Monday, they might have burned up their calculator if they did. The sidewalk in front of the bus station across from my office looks like an ashtray.

Nearly another third of the trash was plastic items such as drink containers and plastic wrapping.

People — in their cars and on foot — are the biggest violators, followed by poorly covered trucks, according to the study, which was compiled by consultant Burns & McDonnell.

Allentown got high marks in the report, which says the city “is well-equipped to manage these issues now and into the future.”

Cities have to spend some money to deal with garbage, such as providing trash cans on sidewalks and in parks, and paying people to empty them. If they didn’t, the litter problem would be worse.

Researchers lauded Allentown for its around-the-clock recycling drop-off center on Martin Luther King Jr. Drive, and for having municipal trash collection twice a week, instead of only once as other communities do.

Cities also have to incur costs to enforce the law. Allentown spent about $669,000, which includes four employees who investigate complaints about illegal dumping and littered properties.

The officers write more than 900 tickets a year for litter accumulation. About 30 people are cited annually for illegal dumping, including at the city’s recycling drop-off center. Often, those offenders are leaving furniture or construction and demolition debris.

I suspect some of them are well-meaning and mistakenly believe the items can be left in the many bins there. But the signs specify what’s allowed to be dropped off. Cameras monitor those who violate the rules, and citations are mailed based on vehicle license plates.

Most litterbugs aren’t caught, though. Unless they’re dumb enough to commit their crime while a police officer is watching, they usually get away with it. The possible fine of up to $300, and the requirement to pick up trash if convicted, doesn’t scare them.

Maybe if they realize they’re paying in another way, with their taxes to clean up their mess, they’ll reconsider.

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