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How to Prevent and Reduce Illegal Dumping

February 5, 2024

illegal dumping on the curb in front of a vacant property

Come to the Reclaiming Vacant Properties Conference October 9-11 in St. Louis

Tires. Furniture. Construction debris. Household trash. The list of things people illegally dump on vacant lots, dead-end streets, and other secluded places goes on and on.

Dealing with illegal dumping is an expensive and tedious cycle. A local government might clean up a dumping site only to get a call a few weeks later about more trash and debris in the same place. Dumping complaints often come in faster than they can be addressed, especially when cities don’t have the resources to clean up every site quickly. And Illegal dumpers are hard to find and hold accountable, so they often return.

In 2021, in partnership with Community Progress, the Genesee County Land Bank Authority, and Camden Community Partnership, the University of Michigan Youth Violence Prevention Center (MI-YVPC) conducted a pilot study to see what low-cost, community-driven interventions could prevent dumping on vacant lots. The results highlight some promising actions cities can take to curb illegal dumping.

Why is illegal dumping a problem?

Illegal dumping has public health, economic, and environmental consequences. “Once, on a public street, someone dumped a 55-gallon drum of an extremely hazardous chemical right at the curb near a park within the city,” said Keith L. Walker, Director of the Department of Public Works in Camden, New Jersey. “It was placed next to a storm sewer drain, and if the drum was punctured, it could have impacted the potable water quality.” Illegal dumping also attracts rats and other vermin.

Cleaning up illegal dumping drains tax dollars. The City of Camden reported spending $4 million a year responding to illegal dumping and removed 7,000 tons of illegally dumped material in 2019 alone.

Illegal dumping also contributes to neighbors’ sense that “no one cares” about their community, and the presence of large piles of trash, tires, and construction debris deters others who might want to invest in the neighborhood. “I think it takes an emotional toll in terms of feeling like there’s forces that are somewhat outside of your control,” said one Camden resident involved in the MI-YVPC study, “What does that say to you or your kids that you live in a neighborhood that people just think they can dump on?”

What can cities do about illegal dumping on vacant lots?

The illegal dumping cycle is hard to break. Abandoned, unmaintained spaces reassure repeat offenders that they won’t be caught—and cities already dealing with many vacant and abandoned properties often have bigger problems to worry about.

But what about solutions that make spaces less attractive to dumping in the first place? Focusing on 16 chronic dumping sites in Flint, Michigan and Camden, New Jersey, the MI-YVPC pilot study investigated low-cost environmental design interventions.

Preventing Illegal Dumping in Flint

In Flint, dump sites were cleaned up and had boulder barriers, solar lighting, and trail cameras installed.

A man on a ride-on mower attemps to mow a vacant lot that has large piles of trash
A vacant lot on Torrance St. that was a magnet for illegal dumping. Photo: MI-YVPC
A bulldozer moves small boulders into place as a barrier on a vacant lot.
Adding a small boulder barrier after cleaning up the lot to deter dumping. Photo: MI-YVPC

“Nothing has been dumped there since they’ve put the stones there,” said one Flint resident of a chronic dump site six weeks later. “I’m not having to keep mowing around or … running over car parts and tearing up the blades,” said another.

Preventing Illegal Dumping in Camden

In Camden, partners installed cameras, signage, landscaping, and/or public art on chronic dumping lots.

An overgrown dead-end street with trash and debris strewn everywhere.
A chronic dump site at 4th and Byron streets, before. Photo: Google Streetview
The same dumping site from the previous photo, but all trash is gone and large concrete bollards painted with colorful murals block the street in its place
The same dump site after the intervention. Photo: MI-YVPC

The interventions also made residents feel better about their neighborhoods, seeing these places not just free of debris, but more cared for.

What can prevent and reduce illegal dumping?

MI-YVPC is continuing to study dumping prevention with the Genesee County Land Bank Authority and Community Progress. Preventing illegal dumping is hard because the places where illegal dumping is most common are unmonitored, secluded, or without an obvious caretaker. But the MI-YVPC studies and our own experience suggests these interventions can help prevent dumping and improve how residents feel about their community:

  • Maintain vacant lots and chronic dumping sites through regular mowing and cleanup. A well-maintained space is less attractive for dumping. For publicly owned lots, dedicate sufficient funding to maintenance. For privately owned lots, hold owners responsible for maintaining their properties, and strategically use code enforcement to make sure problems that make properties look uncared-for are resolved.
  • Increase lighting, monitoring, signage, and enforcement. Spaces that feel secluded generally attract more dumping. Adding lighting, visible patrols and activity, and signage may make dumpers less likely to return to a site for fear of being caught.
  • Install barriers or low-cost fencing. Barriers like large rocks, planters, or bollards visually define a space, make it more difficult to access, and can deter dumping activity.
  • Make publicly owned vacant spaces more attractive using improvements like public art, seating, and landscaping. Residents appreciate interventions that beautify the neighborhood. A place that appears cared-for and intended for community use is less likely to be a dumping target. Check out our vacant land projects database for examples of vacant land stewardship and reuse.
  • Increase awareness and availability of proper disposal options. Cities should provide clear guidance (online, on trash and recycle bins, and through regular mailings like water or tax bills) for how to legally dispose of trash and debris, and consider hosting community-centered events like dumpster roll-offs and hazardous waste and e-waste collection days where residents can easily dispose hazardous materials.
  • Get community partners and residents involved. No one wants to look at a dump site when they leave the house. Community-led interventions in partnership with local organizations like neighborhood associations can help cities and land banks manage limited resources, target chronic dumping sites, and help residents make a difference in their community. Check out our Resident’s Workbook for Dealing with Vacant Buildings and Lots for more tips on how anyone can get involved in revitalizing their community.

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