Collaborate Our Way to No Litter

Aug 18, 2021

Headshot of Michael Butler
Opinion article by Michael Butler, CEO of Tennessee Wildlife Federation, as it appeared in the Murfreesboro Post.

Here’s the least controversial statement you’ll read today: We need to solve Tennessee’s litter pollution problem.

Our roadways, waterways and wildlife are being absolutely choked by litter. And it all has real, measurable impacts on our wallets, our health, and our natural world.

There’s a lot of good work on litter happening across the state but without a comprehensive solution, we’ll never see the progress Tennesseans expect and deserve.

Over the years, there have been countless solutions that focused on one piece of the puzzle or dictated a specific program. These, and other more thoughtful approaches, have not gained traction. This is often because of the self-interests and objections of a few.

So, here’s one more stunningly noncontroversial idea: We need to find a solution to litter pollution that is workable for everyone involved in selling, tossing, and collecting the items that, today, become litter. Workable doesn’t necessarily mean frictionless or free—after all, this is a big problem and it’ll take compromises on all sides.

To find such a solution, Tennessee Wildlife Federation has created a collaborative path forward with Tennessee CLEAN, and we invite all stakeholders to join us in finding new solutions to keep Tennessee clean.

Tennessee CLEAN is designed to start the conversation about what a comprehensive litter pollution solution could look like. Its coalition of supporters propose litter reduction goals that would be met under the leadership of a Tennessee CLEAN Commission. The Commission itself would be made up of leaders from agriculture, retail, manufacturing, single-use plastic distributors, local government and conservation, among others.

In June, Tennessee CLEAN successfully secured a unanimous vote from the Tennessee Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations (TACIR) to conduct a first-of-its-kind, comprehensive litter study. This marks the first fresh progress on statewide litter control in a generation.

TACIR is effectively the research arm of the Tennessee General Assembly. It is a nonpartisan body made up of 25 commission members who are private citizens and public officials representing all levels of government.

Its study will explore topics such as the sources and composition of litter, financial and environmental costs, economic opportunities of recovering waste, the effectiveness of existing efforts and proven solutions to recover litter. This will illuminate paths forward to fixing our litter problem.

If stakeholders choose to engage and work together, we have the potential to reduce the burden of the $19 million in tax dollars spent on cleanup every year. We can reduce the estimated $60 million in annual damages farmers experience. We can create a stream of much-needed recycled material for manufacturers to grow industry and jobs. Tourism can be buoyed, residents can have cleaner water, and quality of life can go up.

All of this potential lies in solving our litter problem in the right way. We welcome everyone and every industry to learn more about the opportunity ahead and get involved at

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