Litter Laws & Litter Tax
Chapter 46.61.655 Revised Code of Washington
The requirement that drivers secure vehicle loads is contained in the state law known as “Rules of the Road,” not the litter law (RCW 70.93). The “Rules of the Road” are enforced by Washington State Patrol and other law enforcement agencies. Ecology partners with Washington State Patrol and county sheriff offices to increase enforcement of this important road safety law. To find out more about secured loads and to see brochures and videos Ecology has developed, visit the Secure Your Load page.
The Waste Reduction, Recycling, and Model Litter Control Act
Chapter 70.93 Revised Code of Washington
The Waste Reduction, Recycling, and Model Litter Control Act (WRRMLCA), or RCW 70.93, is the primary law that guides and directs litter programs in Washington State. Originally passed by the Washington State Legislature in 1971 as the Model Litter Control Act, the law was the first of its kind anywhere. Voters ratified the law in the 1972 general election as an alternative to beverage container deposits. Amendments in 1979 added a youth employment program and public awareness activities concerning recycling.
Concern over the litter problem increased in 1997. The Department of Ecology (Ecology) convened a Litter Task Force to examine the effectiveness of litter control in Washington State. The Task Force made several recommendations for improving the existing system and moving toward a standard of zero litter. These recommendations formed the basis of the 1998 Litter Act (Second Substitute House Bill 3058), amending Chapter 70.93 RCW.
The Act included several changes. Most significantly, it put Ecology in a leadership role overseeing funds from the Waste Reduction, Recycling, and Litter Control Account (see below). A central coordinator at Ecology works cooperatively with other state agencies (Departments of Corrections, Transportation, Natural Resources, Revenue, Fish and Wildlife, and the Parks & Recreation Commission) to develop programs and monitor their progress and results. By centralizing management of the fund, Ecology can focus on coordinating litter collection and prevention efforts.
Among other things, the law calls for Ecology to conduct programs which prevent and clean up litter, foster waste reduction and recycling, and increase public awareness of the need for recycling and litter control.
RCW 70.93.180 created an account within the state treasury known as the Waste Reduction, Recycling, and Litter Control Account. The account is funded through a litter tax imposed on industries whose products are related to the litter problem. The law clearly directs how to allocate litter account funds: 20 percent goes to the Community Litter Cleanup Program, 30 percent goes waste reduction and recycling efforts, and 50 percent goes to litter cleanup efforts. Besides funding the Ecology Youth Corps, the 50 percent dedicated to cleanup efforts funds litter activities carried out by other state agencies and the state’s litter prevention campaign.
Chapter 70.93 also includes information on enforcement and penalties for littering.
Portions of Chapter 70.93 RCW are repeated in Chapter 70.95 RCW, Solid Waste Management - Reduction and Recycling. See section RCW 70.95.240.
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Chapter 82.19 Revised Code of Washington
Statewide litter and recycling programs outlined in RCW 70.93, are funded by the Waste Reduction, Recycling, and Litter Control Account. Funds in the account come from a tax on industries that sell, manufacture, or distribute products and packaging that tend to become litter. Passed with the original Model Litter Control Act in 1971, the tax is unique because it was businesses and industries who proposed the tax assessment on themselves. The Model Litter Control Act came in response to proposals for a beverage container deposit law, or "bottle bill." Bottle bills have appeared in Washington several times since the early 1970s but have never passed. Either the voters or the Legislature turned them down.
The tax rate, which has not changed since 1971, is relatively small at .015 percent. This equates to $150 per $1 million of gross proceeds. The tax is broad-based and does not create any noticeable effect on consumer prices. In the late 1990s the tax generated between $5 and $7 million per year. In addition to Washington, six other states have similar laws: Nebraska, New Jersey, Ohio, Rhode Island, Tennessee, and Virginia.
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The measure of the tax is the gross proceeds of business sales. It applies to places of business selling products that fall into thirteen categories listed in Chapter 82.19 RCW and further defined in Chapter 458.20.243 Washington Administrative Code. The categories are:
Litter FinesOver the past seven years, the Department of Ecology (Ecology) has conducted several focus groups to explore knowledge and attitudes towards littering among key audiences. Many of these focus groups were comprised of people who admitted to littering behavior. When participants were asked what would convince them to not litter, a clear theme emerged. "Knowing I will be caught and fined," was the number one deterrent to littering. Hearing what the fines are was new information for the research participants.
Both focus group and telephone survey participants continue to endorse the use of fines and community service to curb littering behavior. The Litter Task Force recommended that the Legislature and Ecology encourage Washington State Patrol and local governments to enforce litter laws. It also recommended that local penalties "be set at levels sufficient to provide meaningful incentives for compliance." While many support the use of enforcement, studies show that few jurisdictions are able to enforce littering laws effectively for two reasons:
At the state level, minimum fines are set in state law. As the violation is processed, fees or assessments may be added. This could increase the amount the violator must actually pay. The table below shows littering penalties as outlined in state law, and the actual resulting penalty. This information came from the Washington State Administrative Office of the Courts.
Updated October 2007
2Misdemeanors are considered "crimes" [versus infractions] and it is up to the judge to assess penalties.
If you are familiar with previous Washington State litter laws and fines, you may have noticed that one of the more controversial laws is missing in our fines chart. The $95 fine for failing to have a litterbag in your vehicle or watercraft (RCW 70.93.100) was repealed in July of 2003. While there are many arguments that contributed to its repeal, one of the more influential ones came from members of law enforcement. Some officers argued that the wording of the law made it extremely unpopular to enforce.
The wording of the law made the offense a misdemeanor, requiring a court appearance instead of just a citation. Secondly, patrol officers felt that persons who were not littering met the intent of the law whether or not they had a litterbag. Because of these concerns, the 2003 Legislature increased the fines for littering and repealed the litterbag law.
When Substitute House Bill 1409 addressed the litterbag law in 2003, it deleted the entire section pertaining to litterbags (RCW 70.93.100). To read the deleted text, click here.
Issued by Washington State Patrol
Washington State Patrol enforces litter laws on state highways. The table below shows detail on the citations issued in 2011, the most current data available. Because of the great number of local jurisdictions giving litter citations, we can't tell how strongly litter laws are enforced statewide.
Issued by Washington State Patrol
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