This article appeared in the September 2022 issue of Resource Recycling. Subscribe today for access to all print content.


Tennessee has a pollution problem.

The Tennessee River is one of the most plastic-polluted rivers in the world. It has more microplastics per gallon than any other river – including the Yangtze River, which travels farther, and the Rhine River, which is surrounded by more people.

The Tennessee River is also one of the most biologically diverse ecosystems in the world, providing a home to over 300 species of fish, mussels and other aquatic organisms, as well as hundreds of species of birds, mammals, reptiles and amphibians. The river system also provides water and power to cities and towns across the state, meaning continued pollution of this river is bound to have devastating impacts to Tennessee residents and the environment. When you factor in pollution of other Tennessee waterways, roadsides and natural areas, the problem becomes considerably worse.

Pollution of Tennessee’s environment is nothing new – an alarming anti-litter campaign ran from the mid-1970s through the 1980s – yet litter has continued to persist in Tennessee’s environment.

The Tennessee Department of Transportation’s (TDOT) visual litter survey is frequently referred to as the definitive source to show that the litter situation is improving, but there are limitations to the findings of this research. The latest TDOT visual litter survey, completed in 2016, asserted that Tennessee’s litter was down by 53% compared to its 2006 visual litter survey. But this data represents a single snapshot in time and was limited to only 120 local roads, interstates, and federal and state highways. While TDOT states there are 100 million pieces of litter along Tennessee roads at any given time, this does not account for the additional litter in forests, fields, waterways and other areas throughout the state that are often not included in litter cleanup programs.

The Tennessee Wildlife Federation, one of the oldest nonprofits in the state dedicated to conservation and wildlife, saw the full extent of Tennessee’s litter problem and knew it was time to step up and lead the way in tackling litter prevention in the state. The Tennessee Cleaner Landscapes for the Economy, Agriculture and Nature (CLEAN) initiative is a targeted, innovative approach to addressing this critical issue. Through legislation, Tennessee CLEAN calls for a commission of representatives from different sectors of the Tennessee economy to investigate the state’s litter issue and develop a plan specific to Tennessee. The goal of the bill is to spark a collaborative effort to restore Tennessee’s natural beauty for generations to come.

CLEAN was introduced to the state legislature last year and drew great interest, though ultimately did not pass. As we move forward into 2023, the plan is to bring the legislation forward again.

The impacts of litter

Most people have heard the statistics of how long it takes different types of materials to decompose. Cardboard takes two months, cigarette butts take 10-12 years, aluminum cans take up to 200 years, plastic bags take up to 1,000 years. What many may not have heard, however, is the devastating impacts those pieces of trash have on the environment while they are slowly decomposing. Litter affects wildlife, agriculture, recreation and much more – all of which can lead to negative impacts on Tennessee’s economy.

For wildlife, pieces of trash are mistaken for food, shelter and nesting materials. Their heads get stuck in food and beverage containers, they choke or are injured from trying to eat small pieces of plastic and aquatic wildlife get caught in fishing lines and plastic packaging. Spoiled food residue can poison wildlife that eat it or contaminate nearby water sources.

As this waste breaks down in the environment, organic matter ends up in waterways, leading to algae blooms that produce toxins and prevent oxygen production in the water, which in turn prevents fully aquatic species from getting the nutrients they need to survive.

Litter in the environment can decimate crop production. Trash on roads and in fields can damage essential farm equipment, costing farmers large sums of money to repair and reducing productivity or harvest capability. Similar to wildlife, livestock can be injured or poisoned from mistakenly consuming litter or consuming feed contaminated by broken-down litter.

And just as litter breakdown can contaminate water sources, it also infiltrates and contaminates the soil. The plants growing on that soil absorb the toxins, which are carried through to the animals that eat those plants and the people who eat the animals.

Preserving what we love

Tennessee is a great place to enjoy the outdoors. There are rivers and lakes to fish, swim and boat; there are forests to hunt and hike; and there are plenty of hidden gems to explore throughout the state. However, if fish are dying from contaminated water, aquatic birds are getting caught in plastic waste and deer and other land animals are dying or getting injured from litter consumption, there is a direct impact on the availability for fishing and hunting.

If litter builds up in waterways, it can damage boat engines and propellers. If litter is scattered throughout the forests, it is not only an eyesore for those trying to enjoy Tennessee’s beautiful environment but also affects the ability of plants to grow and create that beautiful scenery Tennesseans know and love.

The economic effects of litter extend well beyond hindered agriculture production and reduced hunting, fishing and recreating. The Tennessee Department of Transportation’s TDOT spends more than $19 million annually on litter programs and right-of-way litter pickup contracts. That includes state-level cleanup programs and grants for the state’s 95 counties, but local municipalities are stuck finding their own funds and manpower to keep their communities clean as well.

Litter also decreases property values and impacts a person’s decision to move to a community. It reduces tourism revenue and damages vehicles. It increases human health risks from contaminated water sources and the diseases mosquitoes carry from pieces of litter that collect water.

But there are ways to prevent litter beyond spending millions on cleanups every year. The story that recycled materials can only be reused as lesser forms is often true with the current system, but it doesn’t have to be that way. Recyclable materials like plastic and glass can be reintroduced into manufacturing processes, contributing to a circular economy – a model of production and consumption which keeps existing materials useful as long as possible through recycling, sharing, reuse and more.

We know that this approach is good for the environment and good for business. At a time when industries are struggling to find raw materials and raising product prices to make up for it, reintroducing materials back into the system is essential. This not only provides the materials needed by manufacturers, but also allows these items to remain in circulation for as long as possible instead of being discarded and left to break down in the environment after one or two uses.

Contributing to the circular economy has benefits beyond reduced taxpayer costs for cleanups. Reusing these recyclable materials lowers the cost of manufacturing, which benefits both consumers and everyone in the supply chain. There are also several indirect benefits such as lowered trash-handling costs for businesses, reduced need for landfills and the overall economic and aesthetic benefits of a cleaner landscape.

A new approach

Until now, the litter problem in Tennessee has been addressed by roadway and waterway cleanups. These programs are beneficial and have made great progress in reducing the amount of litter in our state – but the problem is still apparent. Litter is still finding its way to our roadsides, waterways and natural areas every day. Cleanups are only part of the solution. We must prevent litter in the first place, and we need to find creative uses for those reclaimed materials that have not made it to the landscape.

To combat the state’s litter issue, Tennessee CLEAN sets forth four goals for the appointed commission to address within four years: First, recover 85% of beverage containers sold in Tennessee to be recycled. Second, reduce the use of single-use carryout bags across the state. Third, develop and implement a statewide program to prevent and reduce litter. And finally, evaluate current litter legislation for effectiveness and make recommendations for improvement. This bill is the first of its kind in the Southeast and could serve as a model for other states to address litter in the manner best suited for their state.

Tennesseans are tired of litter. It’s time for a change that addresses the root of the problem. For those interested in following along and supporting the initiative, please visit to sign the petition and call on Tennessee’s leadership to solve the litter problem. Tennessee’s environment, economy and future depend on it.


Kevin Botts is director of policy at the Tennessee Wildlife Federation and can be contacted at [email protected].

This article appeared in the September 2022 issue of Resource Recycling. Subscribe today for access to all print content.