Illegal dumping and communities at risk

Cleaning an illegal dumping near Vale, Oregon

Cleaning an illegal dump near Vale, Oregon

Do you ever get the feeling that we’ll never solve all our environmental problems?

You’re right. We won’t. Nothing will ever be perfect as long as people are involved.

Some people cause environmental trouble through negligence. Others through criminal activity. Illegal dumping causes headaches for municipalities large and small all over the country.

The Environmental Protection Agency has apparently not posted any general information about illegal dumping. But many municipalities have. Montgomery County, Maryland has a particularly attractive and useful page.

We have no shortage in this country of legal places to deposit solid waste. They all cost something to use.

  • People who live in houses pay for collection of the waste they take to the curb.
  • Businesses pay for companies to supply and service dumpsters.
  • People can take trash to a landfill, which will accept it for a fee. (Recyclables may be free.)

Some people choose not to pay for waste disposal. So they dump it in a convenient vacant lot, some farmer’s field, or even at recycling drop-off stations. They pour used motor oil and other hazardous chemicals down storm drains.

Littering amounts to illegal dumping. Dropping a load of used tires in a field takes the crime to a new level. It can’t be explained away as laziness. It is criminal. In most cases, illegal dumping is a misdemeanor. Severe cases can be a felony.

Illegal dumping makes everyone suffer

Illegal dumping Louisiana

Flooded Lake Pontchartrain spills over illegal dump site (Louisiana)

My local chapter of the Sierra Club cleans up a stream once a month.

It’s always the same stretch of the same stream. There’s always plenty of trash to keep everyone busy for hours.

As I write this, Baton Rouge, Louisiana is digging out from record flooding. How much worse is it because of plastic bags, mattresses, and other debris in streams?

After all, streams are supposed to channel water to larger streams and ultimately to the ocean. They can’t if illegal dumping has created dams along their course.

Even when trash in streams doesn’t cause floods or make them worse, it contributes to water pollution. It makes extra work and expense for water treatment plants. Fish suffer. People may not be able to fish in some waters. Or they may not be able to eat what they catch.

If someone dumps trash in a vacant lot, it can reduce property values of neighboring homeowners. It will attract vermin like rats, which carry disease. And it will attract human vermin who decide it’s a good place to dump more trash.

Toxic or sharp objects can cause injury and infection. They put children and pets at special risk. Illegal dumping can seriously compromise public health.

Some people try to get out of paying for waste removal by putting it in some company’s dumpster. Businesses suffer because they have to pay for extra trash pickups. They pass those costs to the rest of us in the form of higher prices for goods and services, or higher rents for apartments.

Farmers also suffer from illegal dumping. Dumpers cut fences and disturb livestock. Wherever trash is dumped illegally, someone has to clean it up and contend with the other consequences.

Specific local effects of illegal dumping

illegal dumping with warning sigh

Despite warning signs, illegal dumping continues. New Jersey Turnpike, Hudson County, New Jersey

Four stories turned up in my Google alerts for recycling on consecutive days. The following stories are dated August 13-15, 2016.

There are 3,141 counties and county equivalents in the US. Surely all of them face comparable problems.


Raisin Township in Adrian County has to deal with illegal dumping at the side of Academy Road and at its drop-off recycling center. Someone recently set some discarded mattresses and furniture on fire.

The township sponsors three annual dump days where these items could be dropped off legally. Township officials are considering adding a fourth day. They are also looking into posting warning signs and installing surveillance cameras.


Madison Township in Columbiana County has similar problems at its recycling center. Like all such centers, it is intended for paper, plastic, metal, and glass. Some mornings the person who opens it finds stacks of mattresses or box springs, electronic waste, tires, and other unsuitable materials.

The township installed two surveillance cameras about a month ago. They have captured images of people dumping illegal materials. The cameras are also intended to get license plate numbers. It’s a rural area, so the county probably has a landfill that would accept these materials.


In Shelby County, the Recycling District recently removed a recycling collection bin because of illegal dumping. It is at least the second bin removed because of the amount of trash left there.

Its enforcement efforts for dumping along county roads have been working. The local newspaper recently published an article and photo of a violator who is now paying fines and cleanup costs. Another careless dumper (who lives in another county) got nabbed because her trash contained a prescription pill bottle with identifying information.

The article I link to cites citizen complaints that they can no longer recycle. Rural counties rarely offer recycling pickup. Criminals who cause the closing or removal of recycling drop-off centers make it impossible for other residents to recycle at all.


Fairfax County established a drop-off recycling center in the 1980s. It became less necessary after the county started curbside recycling, but officials have kept it open as a convenience.

But as of September 15, it is closing permanently. Too many vandals have used it as an illegal dumping site. The county posted warning signs. It set up cameras to catch the dumpers. Someone stole the cameras.

Residents complained about the dumping, and the county had to send a dump truck to clean up the site once or twice a week. The truck cost the county about $100 for each load.

Finally, officials decided the site had become unmanageable. So now the county will erect barriers. No one will have access. Will closure solve the problem? Or will the criminals simply dump their loads at the barriers? Maybe if the barriers are high enough, the county can at least mount cameras that will be too much trouble to steal.

Here are some things you can do to become part of the solution:

  • Your municipality’s website probably has information on what it’s doing. Cooperate with its efforts.
  • If your community doesn’t already have cameras monitoring known illegal dump sites, gather a group of like-minded people to encourage it to buy and install some. Pictures of license plates lead to more convictions.
  • If you see an illegal dump, take pictures of it and report it.  Call the non-emergency number of the police or sheriff’s department and/or your city’s solid waste agency.
  • Your community probably has organizations that clean litter from streams and roadways, a local chapter of the Sierra Club, perhaps, or a church group. Participate.
  • Pick up litter when you see it and dispose of it properly. If everyone picks up one piece of litter per day, it can make a big difference.

If you have any other ideas for how ordinary people can deal with this problem, please share them in the comments.

Photo credits:
Illegal dump, Oregon. Some rights reserved by Bureau of Land Management
Illegal dump, Louisiana. Photo by John Messina. Public domain from Wikimedia Commons
Illegal dump, New Jersey. Public domain from Wikimedia Commons

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