Illegal Dumping Prevention Guidebook

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Nature of the Problem


What is Illegal Dumping?

Who Illegally Dumps Waste?

Why is Illegal dumping a Problem?

What Factors Contribute to the Problem?

What is Illegal Dumping?

Illegal dumping is disposal of waste in an unpermitted area. It is also referred to as "open dumping," "fly dumping," and "midnight dumping" because materials are often dumped in open areas, from vehicles along roadsides, and late at night. Illegally dumped wastes are primarily nonhazardous materials that are dumped to avoid either disposal fees or the time and effort required for proper disposal. These materials typically include

  • Construction and demolition waste such as drywall, roofing shingles, lumber, bricks, concrete, and siding
  • Abandoned automobiles, auto parts, and scrap tires
  • Appliances or "white goods"
  • Furniture
  • Yard waste
  • Household trash
  • Medical waste

Tires and demolition debris illegally dumpedWastes such as scrap tires, bulky items, and yard waste may be illegally dumped because they are banned from landfills and their proper management can be costly. Residential and commercial wastes may be illegally dumped in areas that lack or have costly pickup service.

Sites used for illegal dumping vary but may include abandoned industrial, residential, or commercial buildings; vacant lots on public or private property; and infrequently used alleys or roadways. Because of their accessibility and poor lighting, areas along rural roads and railways are particularly vulnerable. Illegal dumping can occur at any time of day but is more common at night or in the early morning hours during warmer months.

If not addressed, illegal dumps often attract more waste, potentially including hazardous wastes such as asbestos, household chemicals and paints, automotive fluids, and commercial or industrial wastes.

top.gif (1031 bytes)Who Illegally Dumps Waste?

Drums of industrial wasteIt is difficult to profile a "typical" illegal dumper. However, offenders can include

  • Construction, demolition, remodeling, roofing, or landscaping contractors
  • Waste management companies or general hauling contractors
  • Operators of transfer stations or junkyards
  • Automobile repair or tire shops
  • Scrap collectors
  • Local residents and "do-it-yourselfers"

An individual may claim to be operating a transfer station or recycling business and accept waste at an unpermitted facility, only to abandon the facility when it reaches capacity. A resident may dump wastes that did not get picked up by local waste haulers, such as bulky items, carpeting, or household hazardous wastes. In many cases, illegal dumpers are breaking other laws relating to vehicle licensing, insurance, drug possession, or theft.

top.gif (1031 bytes)Why is Illegal Dumping a Problem?

Abandoned, unpermitted recycling facilityThe health risks associated with illegal dumping are significant. Areas used for illegal dumping may be easily accessible to people, especially children, who are vulnerable to the physical (protruding nails or sharp edges) and chemical (harmful fluids or dust) hazards posed by wastes. Rodents, insects, and other vermin attracted to dump sites may also pose health risks. Dump sites with scrap tires provide an ideal breeding ground for mosquitoes, which can multiply 100 times faster than normal in the warm, stagnant water standing in scrap tire casings. Severe illnesses, including encephalitis and dengue fever, have been attributed to disease-carrying mosquitoes originating from scrap tire piles. In addition, countless neighborhoods have been evacuated and property damage has been significant because of dump sites that caught fire, either by spontaneous combustion or, more commonly, by arson. Illegal dumping can impact proper drainage of runoff, making areas more susceptible to flooding when wastes block ravines, creeks, culverts, and drainage basins. In rural areas, open burning at dump sites can cause forest fires and severe erosion as fires burn away trees and undergrowth. Dumping activities in such areas can also have a negative impact on plants and wildlife. Additionally, runoff from dump sites containing chemicals may contaminate wells and surface water used as sources of drinking water.

Illegally dumped tires along a creekDump sites serve as magnets for additional dumping and other criminal activities. As a result of illegal dumping, property values decrease and the community becomes unattractive to commercial and residential developers. Without the tax revenues that accompany development, the funding available to establish and maintain effective illegal dumping prevention programs is limited. Ultimately, it is the development of areas susceptible to illegal dumping that eradicates the problem.

Finally, the costs to local government and industry associated with continuous clearing of illegally dumped waste materials are significant. Some urban areas have reported spending several million dollars per year on cleanup, hauling, and disposal activities associated with illegal dump sites. These costs may be passed along to residents in the form of higher service fees or property taxes.

top.gif (1031 bytes)What Factors Contribute to the Problem?

Communities subject to illegal dumping are typically areas with limited access to convenient, affordable waste disposal facilities or services and recycling programs. In lower-income areas, residents may have difficulty affording trash pickup and disposal fees. These areas may also have gang- or drug-related activities and high crime rates, which often result in illegal dumping being given a low priority by law enforcement officials and prosecutors. The problem tends to be worse in areas with a high population of renters who have less stake in the community or absentee property owners who do not respond to problems. Residents in rural areas, where illegal dumping is a common, long-time practice, may not be aware of applicable laws or understand its harmful impacts.

Physical CharacteristicsRoofing shingles dumped on a rural road
Unsecured properties, including undeveloped lots, abandoned structures, unused industrial facilities, and remote spaces, are inviting to illegal dumpers. Areas with vacant properties tend to have a higher incidence of illegal dumping because of the reduced potential for dumpers to be sighted. Other areas, including poorly lit access roads, property along railways, highways and alleys, charity drop box locations, and construction sites or public areas with waste containers are prime targets for illegal dumping. Forest preserves, wooded sites, and farms (especially those near heavily populated areas) are often targets for illegal dumping because they are sparsely populated and dark. The borders of cities and counties tend to have a higher incidence of illegal dumping because of a lack of police presence.

Illegal dumping occurs near junkyards, active or closed landfills, solid waste transfer stations, and temporary dump areas at construction sites when dumpers want to avoid disposal fees or find that a site is closed or refuses to accept waste. Also, the presence of illegally dumped materials attracts additional dumping.

Natural disasters, particularly flooding, result in damaged appliances, wrecked furniture, and demolition debris that may lead to widespread illegal dumping. EPA’s "Planning for Disaster Debris" document (EPA530-K-95-010) is available to help plan for and address these situations.

Lack of Alternative Waste Disposal and Recycling Programs
Areas without routine or affordable pickup service for trash and recyclables tend to experience a higher incidence of household and yard waste dumping. Also, landfills and transfer stations that have high disposal fees, are not conveniently located, have minimum Illegally dumped tirestipping fees, or do not accept small loads encourage dumping. Materials prohibited from landfilling, such as yard waste, scrap tires, freon- containing appliances, and car batteries, may be illegally dumped unless alternate management programs are available, affordable, and well known to the public. EPA’s "Decision-Maker’s Guide to Solid Waste Management" (EPA530-R-95-023) is available to assist local governments in establishing comprehensive waste management programs.

Communities lacking a contract with a waste hauler and standardized billing (by which waste removal is integrated into a water or sewer charge) may have problems with residents who refuse to pay a waste hauler for service on their own. EPA’s document titled "Solid Waste Contract Negotiation Handbook" (EPA220-B-92-004) provides suggestions for establishing contracts with waste management companies, and a "Pay-as-You-Throw Toolkit" (EPA530-R-96-013) is available for communities considering volume-based disposal programs.

Preliminary research shows that communities with "pay-as-you-throw" or unit-based disposal programs do not experience continuing dumping problems. Although such a community may initially experience increased illegal dumping when new programs are launched, once the public understands the system, the problem diminishes. Maintaining educational programs is important to avoid an ongoing problem.

Lack of Solid Waste Codes and Ordinances
Illegal dumping is a problem in many areas because of a lack of effective legal codes or ordinances prohibiting open dumping or burning of wastes. Both activities are prohibited by federal and most state laws, but enforcement by local authorities is typically done under local codes, which may be less stringent. In some cases, the fines for a dumping offense are less than the costs for proper waste disposal, and offenders consider the fines to be simply a cost of doing business. Furthermore, failure to appropriately regulate waste haulers and disposal operations invites illegal dumping.