Know the Laws: Fighting Tennessee Trash with Litter Legislation

While picturesque landscapes and vibrant communities define the Volunteer State, Tennessee faces an ongoing issue that threatens to tarnish its natural beauty and civic pride. The culprit? Litter! But while TDOT and its grantees put boots on the ground to tackle this ever-growing problem, our state governing body is working tirelessly to address this through various laws and ongoing legislation.

Litter, as defined by Tennessee law, can be anything discarded improperly, from cigarette butts to tires, and even litter from a car accident or trash that blows out of a truck bed. While regular citizens are responsible for improper trash disposal, commercial entities also must ensure that their discarded materials are taken care of responsibly.

The consequences of Littering

Whether through negligence or intent, littering in Tennessee carries consequences. From Class C misdemeanors for minor infractions to Class A misdemeanors and even felony charges for aggravated cases, the law leaves no room for leniency when it comes to keeping Tennessee clean.

Mitigated vs. Criminal Littering:

Tennessee classifies the amount of littering in two ways. Mitigated littering is litter that is less than 5 lbs in total. Criminal littering is when an individual or commercial entity dumps over 5 lbs of litter. With both types of littering, the law provides pathways for redemption and accountability.

Minor offenders who litter less than five pounds may face fines of up to $50 and community service. Littering between five and ten pounds is a Class B misdemeanor. Penalties include a $500 fine, court costs, community service of up to 80 hours and even the possibility of six months of jail time (Section 39-14-504). For those who disregard the law with large-scale dumping or repeat offenses, consequences escalate to Class E felonies (Section 39-14-505/6). This classification is for those who have littered and been prosecuted for the offense three times or more or have a second offense of dumping over ten pounds of litter. The offense is punishable by no less than one year and no more than six years in jail, and the jury may access a $3,000 fine. Such severe penalties underscore the state’s commitment to preserving its natural beauty and protecting communities from environmental harm (Section 39-14-505/6).

Beyond Punishment

Tennessee’s legislation emphasizes restoration, compelling offenders to rectify the damage caused by their littering. The court may choose to require a person convicted under this law to remove any substance discarded and restore the property or waters damaged to its former condition at the offender’s expense (Section 39-14-506). Whether through property cleanup or public service, the aim is not just to punish but to heal the wounds inflicted upon the state’s landscapes.

Law enforcement agencies across Tennessee are tasked with upholding these regulations, with special provisions in place to incentivize reporting and enforcement. The fines collected from littering violations are reinvested into litter prevention programs and education initiatives, ensuring that Tennessee’s battle against litter is fought on multiple fronts.

While Tennessee’s legislation provides a robust framework for enforcement and restoration, the battle against litter extends beyond punitive measures. While TDOT doesn’t wield prosecutorial authority, it recognizes the importance of prevention and education and offers a proactive solution through its Litter Hotline. It empowers citizens to take action against littering by providing a simple yet effective mechanism to report incidents anonymously. While no fines are accessed, the litterer receives a letter informing them of the negative consequences of their actions and providing them with educational materials.

In Tennessee, the fight against litter is more than just a legal obligation—it’s a shared responsibility woven into the fabric of community pride and environmental stewardship. By proper waste disposal, abiding by litter laws, participating in volunteer clean-up efforts,  and continuing to invest in prevention, we all can do our part to keep our communities clean and beautiful. Be part of the solution to end littering in our beautiful state.

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