Is littering getting worse on P.E.I.? Province plans new survey

The Prince Edward Island Women's Institute says it believes littering is steadily increasing on the Island. P.E.I.'s Environment Department says there's no hard evidence, but is planning to bring back its litter survey in 2022.

'People are intentionally still littering,' says women's institute as annual roadside cleanup underway

The P.E.I. Women's Institute urges Islanders to clean up roadsides and other public spaces year-round, not just on its annual roadside cleanup day. (Michael Wilson/CBC)

The Prince Edward Island Women's Institute says it believes littering is steadily increasing on the Island. 

The W.I.'s annual roadside cleanup began in 1973. It encourages Islanders to get outside and pick up litter along roadsides in the spring, offering free trash bags and prizes. 

The 2021 cleanup is Saturday, May 8. 

"It's disgusting," said Helen Nicholson, the W.I. board member responsible for the cleanup. "It annoys me ... that somebody just doesn't care.

"We are hoping to meet with the province and other stakeholders over the next year to address a stop-littering campaign," Nicholson said. 

Trash collection doubles since 2014

The W.I. said the amount of litter it collects during the cleanup has more than doubled since 2014. 

The P.E.I. Women's Institute roadside cleanup has been going since 1973. (Submitted by P.E.I. Women's Institute)

In 2014, the cleanup collected more than 23 metric tonnes of roadside trash. In 2018, the yield was up to almost 39 tonnes, and in 2019, it rose to about 49 tonnes.

In 2020, the cleanup yielded just over 29 tonnes, but the institute attributes that to residents being home due to the COVID-19 pandemic cleaning up on their own, earlier than normal. Also, the usual free bags from the institute were not handed out due to the pandemic. The amount of waste was up at the Island Waste Management Corporation, P.E.I.'s waste disposal service, for a few months leading up to the cleanup, the institute notes. 

"We are seeing trends for 2021 through feedback from members of the public," said Nicholson.

She said the types of garbage found along Island roadways "indicates that people are intentionally still littering," and that there has been "a steady increase in the amount of alcohol bottles and beer cans over the past few years." 

There needs to be some publicity or campaign to encourage peopleto return their containers and not to litter.— Don Jardine

Nicholson noted "masks are not being discarded properly and are showing up roadsides to parking lots," and that more Islanders are asking for W.I. bags for cleaning up. 

Litter survey dumped years ago

The province used to measure the amount and types of roadside litter across P.E.I. with a survey.

'All I see is face masks. That is really disgusting ... you can darn well pick it up,' says W.I. board member Helen Nicholson, who is in charge of the annual roadside cleanup. (Jonathan Hayward/The Canadian Press)

The last litter survey was done in 2009, and showed there was a lot less trash along Island roads than previous years, but tossed coffee cups and empty cans were still a problem at the time.

Don Jardine was director of pollution prevention for the province for 18 years, a title that no longer exists. He left government the same year the survey stopped. 

"There needs to be some publicity or campaign to encourage people to return their containers and not to litter," said Jardine, now a private environment and climate change consultant.

"It's a careless attitude a lot of people have ... I can't say whether it's up or down, just that it hasn't stopped." Jardine credits former P.E.I. environment minister Gilbert Clements as the catalyst for the survey and anti-littering campaigns, noting Clements suggested a tax on disposable coffee cups, which was rejected. 

The Southeast Environmental Association in Montague carried out the 2009 litter survey for the province. Its current executive director Jackie Bourgeois is not sure whether littering is up, but says it is a big problem. 

"It would be good to know where the litter is being generated from, for sure. If it is from fast food places, then perhaps we can address that with the companies providing the food — i.e., move to biodegradable packaging," Bourgeois said in an email to CBC News. She said she'd also be open to the idea of an anti-littering campaign. 

Why should people care about garbage, besides how it looks? 

"The negative impacts of littering extends to how it impacts our waterways, our land/soil, and how wildlife uses the litter being thrown away," Bourgeois said. She notes it takes years for trash to break down, and then smaller particles enter waterways and soil and are ingested by wildlife.

Bringing back survey

The province says there is no hard evidence to show littering is up.

Barry Jackson is the manager of product stewardship and regulatory affairs for the department and said several factors can affect the amount of trash collected during the annual roadside cleanup, including cleanups done separately under the province's adopt-a-highway program. 

Jackson said government is planning to bring back the litter survey in spring 2022.

He said it's a "valuable decision-making tool" that will help the province make policy decisions, and help measure the effectiveness of an impending federal government ban on "the dirty six" single-use plastics including straws and six-pack rings.

Under P.E.I.'s Environmental Protection Act, individuals can be fined $200 to $10,000 for littering. Corporations may face fines of $1,000 to $50,000. The act may be enforced by conservation officers, municipal police or RCMP. 

Litter is not on the priority list in terms of enforcement — it never was.— Don Jardine


The institute said increasing fines might help the littering problem, but even Nicholson said she worries that could take away from more important policing. 

"Litter is not on the priority list in terms of enforcement — it never was," Jardine said. 

"Perhaps if people expected a substantial fine for tossing garbage, then they may not chance it," added Bourgeois. "Alternatively, I suppose if there were a 'If you see this person littering — report it!!' campaign that might stop people."

Jackson said P.E.I.'s fines are likely in line with other provinces in terms of dollar amounts. As far as enforcement goes, he said it's very difficult to catch people littering. 

"A split second is really hard to catch somebody in the act," he said. 

The traditional yellow W.I. bags are available through Island Waste Management and select Access PEI sites. People can also use clear bags from home.

Full bags can be left at the roadside for transportation crews to pick up.

Nicholson asks Islanders to pick up trash along roadsides and other spaces all year, not just roadside cleanup day. 

More from CBC P.E.I.


Sara Fraser

Web Journalist

Sara has worked with CBC News in P.E.I. since 1988, starting with television and radio before moving to the digital news team. She grew up on the Island and has a journalism degree from the University of King's College in Halifax. Reach her by email at