Pollution Prevention Fact Sheets: Illegal Dumping Control

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Illegal dumping control as a management practice involves using public education to familiarize residents and businesses with how improperly disposed materials can affect stormwater. By locating and correcting illegal dumping practices through education and enforcement measures, the many risks to public safety and water quality associated with illegal disposal actions can be prevented. For stormwater managers, illegal dumping control is important in preventing contaminated runoff from entering wells and surface water, as well as averting flooding due to blockages of drainage channels for runoff.

Several types of illegal dumping can occur. The first is the illegal dumping (also known as "open dumping," "fly dumping," or "midnight dumping") of litter that occurs at abandoned industrial, commercial, or residential buildings; vacant lots; and poorly lit areas such as rural roads and railway lines. This dumping primarily happens to avoid disposal fees or the time and effort required for proper disposal at landfills or recycling facilities. A second type is the illegal dumping of water that has been exposed to industrial activities and then released to the storm drainage system, introducing pollutants into stormwater runoff.


Illegal dumping can occur in both urban and rural settings in all geographic regions. The effects of illegal dumping may be more pronounced in areas with heavier rainfall, due to the greater volume of runoff. In more urbanized areas, illegal dumping may occur due to inaccessibility of recycling or solid waste disposal centers that are often located on the suburban-rural fringe.

Design Considerations

Illegal dumping control programs focus on community involvement and targeted enforcement to eliminate or reduce illegal dumping practices. The key to successfully using this practice is increasing public awareness of the problem and its implications. Illegal dumping control programs use a combination of public education, citizen participation, site maintenance, and authorized enforcement measures to address illegal waste disposal. Some of the issues which need to be examined when creating a program include:

Effective illegal dumping control programs use practices that educate and involve the community, local industries, and elected officials in an effort to eliminate the illegal discarding of wastes. An EPA toolkit for preventing illegal dumping focuses on four programmatic areas (Table 1.)

Table 1. Four Programmatic Areas for Preventing Illegal Dumping (US EPA, 1998)
Cleanup Efforts

Cleanup projects will require a coordinated planning effort to ensure that adequate resources and funding are available. Once a site has been cleaned, signs, lighting or barriers may be required to discourage future dumping. Signs should indicate the fines and penalties for illegal dumping, and a phone number for reporting incidents. Landscaping and beautification efforts may also discourage future dumping, as well as provide open space and increase property values.

Community Outreach and Involvement

This may be the most important tool in ensuring that this practice is effective. The organization of special cleanup events where communities are provided with the resources to properly dispose of illegally dumped materials increases the understanding among residents of illegal dumping impacts and supplies opportunities to correctly dispose of materials which may otherwise be illegally dumped. Integration of illegal dumping prevention into community policing programs or use of programs such as Crime Stoppers may also be an effective way to increase enforcement opportunities without the additional cost of hiring new staff. Producing simple messages relating the cost of illegal dumping on local taxes and proper disposal sites will aid in eliminating the problem. Having a hotline where citizens can report illegal activities and educating the public on the connection between the storm drain and water quality will decrease disposal of waste into storm drain inlets.

Targeted Enforcement

This tool involves the use of ordinances to regulate waste management and eliminate illegal dumping through methods such as fines, cost recovery penalties for cleanup, and permit requirements for waste management activities, to name a few. These fines and penalties can be used to help fund the prevention program or to provide rewards to citizens who report illegal dumping activities. Other recommendations for this tool include training of staff from all municipal departments in recognizing and reporting illegal dumping incidents, and dedicating staff who have the authority to conduct surveillance and inspections, and write citations for those caught illegally dumping.

Tracking and Evaluation

This tool measures the impact of prevention efforts and determines if goals are being met. Using mapping techniques and computer databases allows officials to identify areas where dumping most often occurs, record patterns in dumping occurrence (time of day, day of week, etc), and calculate the number of citations issued and the responsible parties. This allows for better allocation of resources and more specific targeting of outreach and education efforts for offenders.


Illegal dumping is often spurred by cost and convenience considerations, and a number of factors continue to encourage this practice. The cost of fees for dumping at a proper waste disposal facility are often more than the fine for an illegal dumping offense, thereby discouraging people from complying with the law. The absence of routine or affordable pickup service for trash and recyclables in some communities also encourages illegal dumping. A lack of understanding regarding applicable laws or the inadequacy of existing laws may also contribute to the problem.


While the effectiveness of illegal dumping control measures at reducing pollutant loads to local waters are hard to quantify, there are numbers to demonstrate the preventative nature these programs have in keeping waste from illegal dump sites and ultimately stormwater runoff. Some examples include:

The City/County of Spokane, Washington Litter Control Program
This program is responsible for removing indiscriminate dumping on publicly- owned properties and road rights-of-way. The program is estimated to remove 350 tons of illegally dumped material each year.

Project HALT in Phoenix, Arizona
This program cleaned up a reported 15,000 tons of waste in 1996 and 1997 and issued over 165 citations.

The "Tire Roundup" Program in Detroit, Michigan
Sponsored by the Southwest Detroit Environmental Visions community organization, local residents are paid to bring in illegally dumped tires. In 1995, residents were payed 25 cents per tire, and over 8,000 tires were collected.

Illegal dumping of household and commercial waste has a variety of impacts on water quality. Hazardous chemicals generated from household, commercial and industrial sources can contaminate ground and surface water supplies, affecting drinking water and public health as well as aquatic habitat. Reduced drainage of runoff due to blockage of streams, culverts and drainage basins can result in flooding and channel modification. Open burning associated with some illegal sites can cause forest fires that create severe erosion and cause sediment loading in streams. Economically, property values decrease as a result of illegal dumping and affect the local tax base and the ability to maintain pollution prevention programs.


The cost of illegal dumping control program activities can vary due to economic and social factors, but with creative thinking potential costs may be reduced. Possible sources of labor for dumping site cleanups can include community and youth groups or corporations. Equipment for cleanup may be available through either public works or transportation agencies or through donations by private companies. Training municipal staff to report incidences of illegal dumping witnessed during the performance of other duties reduces the need for full-time staff for the program.


Camp Dresser & McKee (CDM), et al. 1993. California Storm Water Municipal Best Management Practice Handbook. Blue Print Service. Oakland, CA.

City of Spokane website. 1999. Waste to Energy Plant-Litter Control/Indiscriminate Dumping. Spokane, WA.

National Center for Environmental Decision Making Research. 1997. Decision Makers Guide to Controlling Litter and Illegal Dumping. NCEDR. Knoxville, TN.

United States Environmental Protection Agency (US EPA). 1998. Illegal Dumping Prevention Guidebook. US EPA Region 5, Waste, Pesticides, and Toxics Division. Chicago, Illinois.