Keep North Carolina filthy: Proposed budget could limit cities, counties from enforcing litter laws

By: - September 21, 2023 12:01 pm
This is a photo of a a plastic tray and cup caught in some branches in a Durham stream.

The proposed state budget contains language that could constrain local governments from enforcing littering ordinances. (File photo: Lisa Sorg)

This story has been updated with comments from Scott Mooneyham, spokesperson for the NC League of Municipalities, who could not be reached by deadline.

Nearly 11.6 million pounds of litter was culled from North Carolina highways in 2022, according to transportation department figures, and that number doesn’t include the bags, bottles, dirty diapers, cigarette butts and other flotsam choking rural roads and urban streams.

Now if a provision in the proposed state budget is not changed, North Carolina’s trash problem could worsen.

Much of the focus has been on the budget’s proposed prohibition on plastic bag bans, but the bill could have more far-reaching consequences: It could prevent local governments from enforcing laws to keep their streets, roads and streams clean: littering ordinances.

According to Susannah Knox, senior attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center, the bill language is so broad that local governments could interpret it to mean they couldn’t “regulate the use, disposition or sale or an auxiliary container” — and that includes littering.

And an “auxiliary container” is defined in the bill as a “bag, cup, package, container, bottle, device or other packaging” and “designed for the consumption, transportation or protection of merchandise, food, or beverage.”

Local governments could still operate recycling, composting and solid waste programs, according to the SELC, but the bill language does not — either intentionally or inadvertently — say municipalities can continue to regulate littering.

“The choice to outlaw any local government regulation of the ‘use or disposition’ of any container made of any material sweeps so broadly that it will leave local governments unsure if they can enforce existing laws against litter,” Knox wrote.

The bill language also contains provisions regarding discarded shopping carts.

Scott Mooneyham, spokesperson for the NC League of Municipalities, said the “NC Retail Merchants Association wanted this provision and that it was more about  preventing cities from charging retailers for shopping carts being taken off site and discarded, though I am not aware of any cities in this state doing or considering that. ”

As for the littering language, Mooneyham said that “sworn law enforcement officers are authorized to enforce the laws of the state,” including statutes that prohibit littering.


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Lisa Sorg
Lisa Sorg

Assistant Editor and Environmental Reporter Lisa Sorg helps manage newsroom operations while covering the environment, climate change, agriculture and energy.