May 04, 2020

How Does Littering Affect the Environment?

Littering, or what littering means to us today (think throwing a styrofoam cup out your car window), is actually a rather modern problem. It wasn’t until the 1950s or so that manufacturers began producing a higher volume of litter-creating material, such as disposable products and packaging produced with materials such as plastic. That said, the impact of littering has been swift in those short few decades: about 8 million tons of plastic waste finds its way into the oceans annually and litter continues to largely be a deliberate act

It can be difficult to fully comprehend the monumental effects throwing a cup out a window or dropping food packaging on the ground can have.  To decrease littering in your community, it’s important to educate the public on what littering is and how it affects our environment. The following littering facts can arm you to help do your part to end littering and encourage others to do the same.

What is littering?

Littering is the improper disposal of waste products. Littering can happen intentionally or unintentionally, but both have environmental consequences.

What are the Most Commonly-Littered Items?

Litter can take a variety of forms, but some items are littered more frequently than others. In a study by Keep America Beautiful, researchers found that the most littered items include:

  • Cigarette butts
  • Food wrappers
  • Plastic bottles
  • Disposable cups
  • Grocery bags
  • Straws
  • Beverage cans
  • Tire and vehicle debris

Why Do People Litter?

To stop littering, it’s important to know why people litter. While 19.9% of litter on land comes from unsecured items in the back of trucks or trash receptacles, the vast majority of litter originates intentionally. Keep America Beautiful found that 76% of litter on roadways comes from motorists and pedestrians. 

But why do people intentionally litter? The justification behind littering is quite simple and generally boils down to one of four reasons:

  • Laziness or carelessness
  • Lack of access to trash receptacles
  • Lenient law enforcement
  • Presence of litter already in the area

How is Littering Bad for the Environment?

Other than just being unsightly, litter can cause serious consequences for the environment.

Litter Causes Pollution

As litter degrades, chemicals and microparticles are released. These chemicals aren’t natural to the environment and can, therefore, cause a number of problems. For example, cigarette butts can contain chemicals such as arsenic and formaldehyde. These poisons can make their way into the soil and freshwater sources, impacting both humans and animals. In fact, 60% of water pollution is attributed to litter.

In addition to water and land pollution, litter can also pollute the air. Researchers estimate that more than 40% of the world’s litter is burned in the open air, which can release toxic emissions. These emissions can cause respiratory issues, other health problems, and even be a starting base for acid rain.  

Litter Kills Wildlife

Animals are innocent victims affected by litter every day. Researchers estimate that over one million animals die each year after ingesting, or becoming entrapped in, improperly discarded trash.

Plastic litter is the most common killer of animals, and marine animals are the most notably affected. Each year over 100,000 dolphins, fish, whales, turtles, and more drown after becoming entangled in or digesting plastic litter.

Litter Facilitates the Spread of Disease

Improperly discarded trash is a breeding ground for bacteria and diseases. Litter can spread diseases, viruses, and parasites through two methods, direct and indirect contact. 

Germs can be transmitted directly by physically coming into contact with litter. This can happen by picking up, touching, or by accidentally injuring themselves on improperly disposed of trash. 

Bacteria and parasites can also be transmitted to humans indirectly through an affected vector. Vectors are animals or insects that come in contact with contaminated litter and then transmit those contaminates to humans.

Litter Solutions and Prevention

So now that we understand why litter is harmful, it’s time to discuss potential solutions. Here are three ways we can fight back against litter today.

Attend Cleanups

Take a proactive approach to stop littering by attending organized cleanups. Working to clean up your community is not only beneficial to the environment but will make your community beautiful.

Check out these clean-up groups on Meetup to find an organized litter walk in your community.

Increase the Number of Public Disposal Bins

One of the reasons that people litter is due to lack of public garbage bins, or overflowing bins that do not get emptied regularly. By increasing the number of available trash receptacles and the frequency that they get cleaned, communities can help deter littering.

Impose Strict Laws and Regulations

An effective barrier to littering is strong anti-litter laws and regulations. Both individuals and businesses are more likely to follow litter laws when there are serious legal or financial consequences.

TDS is Committed to Help End Littering

TDS is committed to the safe and responsible disposal of waste. To do this, we created the TDS Eco Academy to teach K-12 students about trash, recycling, composting, and other disposal options. We also offer a variety of disposal solutions for both residents and businesses including dumpster rentals and a citizens’ convenience center

If you’d like to learn more about litter and trash disposal, visit our blog.