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Local Environmental Realities: What Do Policymakers Prioritize?

In navigating environmental challenges, waste management is at the forefront for local government leaders.

To better understand the environmental challenges facing local governments, we surveyed elected officials in local governments across the United States in collaboration with Dr. Jennifer Kagan at the University of Hawaii. Officials were asked how frequently they work on the following environmental issues: air pollution, water pollution, flooding, litter, waste management, and climate change mitigation or adaptation. 

The results showed that waste management is by far the most common environmental issue for local governments. A striking 80% of local elected officials indicated that they deal with waste management either “sometimes”, “often”, or “very often” in their roles. This comes as no surprise as many local governments are responsible for a wide range of waste management programs including recycling, landfill operations, setting policies around both residential and industrial disposal, as well as public education initiatives. 

Flooding and litter were the next most common issues that local policymakers reported working on (69% and 66% of respondents, respectively). Water pollution was also a significant concern for respondents, with 62% of local officials indicating that they deal with this issue. Like waste management, these problems often have very tangible impacts that require direct intervention from local governments. 

In contrast, far fewer local officials reported working on climate change mitigation or air pollution. This discrepancy likely stems from limited resources at the local level to take on these larger-scale challenges. While local government officials from communities with larger populations were more likely to engage with climate change and air pollution than those from smaller communities, the overall ranking of issues was generally consistent across local governments of all sizes. 

Finally, it is worth noting that—even if most local governments don’t have their sights set on larger-scale problems like air pollution or climate change—opportunities exist for delivering co-benefits from policies or practices to address more traditional local government environmental problems like waste management. For example, some innovative approaches to waste management which deliver long-term cost savings can also significantly reduce methane emissions, which is a potent greenhouse gas. Consequently, local residents concerned with these larger-scale environmental problems can find opportunities to advocate for changes to existing operations locally that are “win-win”.  

Survey Background 

The research underlying this brief was built on data from a national random sample of 253 elected policymakers from local governments (i.e., township, municipality, and county governments) with a population of 1,000 or more. The survey was developed in collaboration with Dr. Jennifer Kagan at the University of Hawaii and was implemented by CivicPulse. 

Below is the question wording for the survey item used: 

How often do you work on each of the following environmental issues? 

  • All environmental issues combined 

  • Air pollution 

  • Water pollution 

  • Flooding 

  • Litter 

  • Waste management 

  • Climate change mitigation or adaptation 

Answer choices: 

  • Never 

  • Rarely 

  • Sometimes 

  • Often 

  • Very often 


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