Prove your humanity

Reports of illegal dumping to Keep Pennsylvania Beautiful were up by 212 percent in 2020. Their community-based enforcement program called Illegal Dump Free PA does have a surveillance camera loan program so that communities can catch people in the act of throwing couches over hillsides or trash bags into wooded areas. But program coordinator Rob Dubas says a lot of reports of illegal dumping come from the public through a form on one of their two websites, through social media, phone calls, and in one case, a letter that was sent through regular old snail mail. 

Their data is collected like citizen science. “Just because there’s an absence of a report in one area, doesn’t mean that area doesn’t have illegal dumping,” he said. But the reports show trends.

“We’ve been receiving reports through this program, I think, going back all the way back to 2005,” Dubas said. “We did, however, do a large push in 2020 on social media.”

The Allegheny Front’s Kara Holsopple spoke with Rob Dubas about the summary of illegal dumping reports and the reasons behind the illegal dumping problem in Pennsylvania.

LISTEN to their conversation

 Kara Holsopple: So there may be more reports coming in because you’re encouraging that through. But what are some of the other reasons there might be this kind of dramatic uptick in illegal dumping reports in 2020?

Rob Dubas: There were also some disruptions in trash collection and recycling in some areas due to Covid, for instance, if the Department of Public Works or whoever does their trash collection had workers getting sick or were quarantined.

We also have seen what we call the apartment clean-outs or house clean-outs. Those are always a source of illegal dumping. These would be where someone is either evicted or moves out of a residence, leaving their stuff behind. That stuff is just tossed out somewhere. That could be also a driving force in the increase in illegal dumping.

Holsopple: Also in the report, you mentioned not just a suspension of regular trash and recycling, but special collections of electronics and things.

Dubas: We have special collections in Pennsylvania like probably most states in the country. There are a lot of things that you can’t put on your curbside: electronics, paint, TVs, tires. So normally the way those are handled are special collections, and a fair number of those were canceled this year or severely curtailed just because of Covid.

A lot of people were stuck with extra tires or old TVs, and there’s no way to get rid of them. That’s actually an ongoing thing that we would like to see improved in the state by having accessible, reasonably priced ways to dispose of those items.

Holsopple: And then there might be more reporting because people are spending more time outdoors?

Dubas: During this last year, I think there was a big push because we were all stuck at home. People are wanting to get out in their parks or wanting to walk along the rivers or things like that. I think there was more of a chance for people to see illegal dumping. 

Holsopple: Is there more dumping happening in certain areas, or is it spread throughout the state? 

Dubas: We do keep county numbers. For the most part, the highest numbers in the counties fell in line with where the population was densest, which I guess would make sense because there’s more of a chance of someone seeing the dumping if there are more people who live in that county. Allegheny County and Philadelphia, in general, had the highest numbers, not just this year, but, going back five years or so. 

Holsopple: And I was disappointed to notice that a lot of the dumping takes place in parks and forests.

Dubas: Yeah, we were disappointed about that, as well. That’s unfortunate because that’s an area that everyone should be able to use. You don’t want to take your dog to somewhere where there might be broken glass, and there’s a lot of wildlife in parks — deer, birds. That old TV could be leaching chemicals into streams.

Holsopple: Your report also talks about dumping at recycling facilities, which kind of blew my mind. What’s going on there?

Dubas: That’s a situation where people are sort of half wanting to do the right thing. Every recycling center is different regarding what they can accept, so it’s really important for people to call or go to their website in advance to make sure that what they’re going to take there is something that they can both legally and realistically accept. I have a feeling that in this situation, people are not doing that ahead of time, and just dropping it outside their door instead of taking it back home. 

Holsopple: It’s interesting that it’s also considered illegal dumping.

Dubas: It is, yes, and it would be under the same penalty as if you threw it down the hillside. 

Holsopple: What are the consequences for illegal dumping?

Dubas: The penalties do range a bit depending on who the enforcement authority is. A lot of times it will be police or code enforcement officers in general. The fines are a bit on the low side. Usually it’s a what’s called a summary offense, which is the lowest level of citation. It’s sort of in line with a speeding ticket or running a red light. The fines can be as low as $50 dollars. And I’ve actually seen lower than that. This is just for the first offense.

They could go up to maybe three hundred dollars. Again, this is depending on who’s writing the ticket and what statute they’re writing it under, because there’s a number of different statutes they could write that ticket under.

I’d say in general, though, the cost of cleaning it up is not reflected in the fine amount. In a report from 2013, a study found that it was about $619 dollars a ton on average to clean up a dump site, or about a little less than $3,000 dollars to clean an entire site.

Holsopple: Which items are most commonly dumped?

Dubas: The types of items dumped stayed fairly the same throughout the past six years. Household trash actually is the number one. I was not expecting that. Tires are another really high one, though, and that one does make a little more sense because you usually can’t put tires out with your trash. 

There have been instances, we suspect, of unscrupulous tire haulers collecting tires from a shop, potentially collecting the fee that they would be using to take them to the landfill, then pocketing that money and depositing the tires along the roadside somewhere. 

Holsopple: It seems like illegal dumping is a systemic problem. I think a lot of people think of it as an individual problem, but there are systems in place that are not providing people with the access that they need and a lot of cases to get rid of this waste stream that we have accumulated.

Dubas: That’s correct. I think that a lot of times trash and recycling are sort of treated as an afterthought service. If they became more of a comprehensive part of the municipality’s or county’s overall goals, I think that would help a lot.

I think it also comes down to the fact that we have a lot of things. We have a lot of disposable items — TVs that maybe still work, though, we just get a bigger one. I think people need to take into account, “OK, I just spent $800 on a new TV. I should also be willing to spend $50 on disposing of the old one.” We have to stop thinking of our items as use it and done.

Rob Dubas is program coordinator for Illegal Dump Free PA, a program of Keep Pennsylvania Beautiful. He says if you see someone in the act of illegal dumping, don’t confront them. It could be dangerous. Report it, instead.