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Effects Of Litter Pollution And How To Prevent It

Tossing one candy wrapper on the sidewalk may not seem a big deal. But it would quickly become a problem if everyone casually threw trash in the streets and other public places, right? People contribute to litter pollution without knowing that it has severe consequences for humans and animals. 

This article examines littering, why people do it, and most importantly, how to end the environmental menace.

Why do people litter?

garbage everywhere
Photo by Ariungoo Batzorig on Unsplash.

Littering is the improper disposal of solid waste products on land and sea. Almost everyone has littered at one point, but some people make it an intentional habit. 

Illegal dumping is usually lumped with littering. It is when people intentionally discard large quantities of waste improperly. They do it to avoid paying disposal fees or just to avoid making the effort for proper disposal.

People litter for many reasons, the most common being laziness to locate the nearest trash receptacle. Most folks also believe that a sanitation or maintenance worker will come along and clean up the garbage. That's environmental irresponsibility.

Some people complain they are forced to litter because there aren't enough trash receptacles in public spaces. Sometimes, the available bins are not regularly emptied, so they overflow and litter the surrounding area.

Sometimes, unintentional littering occurs when transporting waste due to trash spilling from unsecured or overloaded garbage bins. Debris from vehicle accidents or wear also fall into this category.

Intentional littering may also be encouraged by the erroneous belief that one person's littering will not impact the environment. But really, all it takes is one piece of trash. The presence of litter in an area only encourages more littering.

Most littered items

plastic bottle on soil
Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash.

Typical forms of litter pollution include cigarette butts, plastic bottles, food wrappers, plastic bags, and single-use packaging. Health concerns due to COVID-19 have caused increased littering of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) like nose masks, latex gloves, and wipes.

Typical illegally dumped trash includes furniture, mattresses, household garbage, appliances, e-waste, and construction debris. People also dump hazardous waste like paint, tires, batteries, etc.

How does littering affect the environment?

Littered areas are an eyesore, but that's the least of the negative impacts that littering can have. Littering hurts everyone in society, including those who don't litter; even animals in the wild suffer the consequences. 

1. Littering pollutes the environment.

Litter, especially those containing plastic materials, will not entirely or quickly decompose. Additionally, many of them contain toxic chemicals that leach into the soil and freshwater sources, causing water and land pollution.

Cigarette butts, for instance, contain arsenic and formaldehyde. Research conducted by KAB2 found that Americans discard about 5.7 billion cigarette butts yearly. The same research also found that much of the litter dumped on roads eventually ends up in our waterways. That explains why a significant portion of water pollution is attributed to litter.

What about air pollution? Litter not only stinks up the air but also releases harmful chemicals and microparticles. About 40% of the world’s litter is burned in the open1. That can trigger respiratory problems and acid rain.

2. It is dangerous to animals.

monkeys feeding on garbage
Photo by Dr. Raju Kasambe on Wikimedia Commons licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0 (Cropped from original).

Over 800 marine and coastal species suffer from marine and plastic debris. Plastic gets blown or runs off into the world's oceans. On land or in aquatic environments, various litter can trap animals, causing severe injuries or death by suffocation or drowning. 

Many unfortunate animals die of starvation as a result of mistaking bits of plastic litter for food. They cannot digest the plastic, so it remains in their stomach, reducing capacity. Some pieces of litter may have sharp edges that can damage the internal organs of animals that ingest them. 

Furthermore, some litter may contain poisonous substances. Marine life is especially susceptible to chemical pollution.

Throwing food packaging with leftovers on roads attracts wildlife or strays to forage by roadsides. It is dangerous to animals because it increases the chances of wildlife-vehicle collisions. 

3. Littering endangers human health.

Littered areas are a breeding ground for communicable diseases. Cholera outbreaks in some urban areas have been tied to littering. Air and water illnesses are easily spread in dirty environments.

Litter can spread diseases in various ways. Bacteria and viruses from bodily fluids like saliva can become airborne. Diseases can also spread when people try to remove improperly disposed trash or accidentally touch it.

Disease-carrying insects and rodents can also live on litter piles so close to human residences. They can easily bring in whatever diseases they contract from waste into homes.

Litter pollution can also sneak into our food chain. For example, fish that swallow carcinogenic microplastics may eventually end up on our plates. Even our water sources for drinking and recreation can become contaminated.

4. Litter is a safety hazard.

solid waste blocking drainage
Photo by SuSanA Secretariat on Flickr licensed under CC BY 2.0 (Cropped from original).

Littering can pose safety hazards to road users. It introduces all sorts of materials on the roads that can cause tire punctures or compromise the integrity of the roads. Litter can also block drain gates and cause roads to become flooded. 

Large items dumped by the roadside can contribute to collisions. At the very least, they will slow down traffic and cause delays for road users. Litter with pointy parts and sharp edges can also injure pedestrians.

Litter also raises safety issues when people go swimming or boating. Debris can injure swimmers or damage the engines of boats. Unfortunately, shorelines and waterways don't receive as many cleaning services as highways or streets.

5. It slows economic development.

cleaning roads up
Photo by Denisse Leon on Unsplash.

Many organizations and individuals work to clear the roads, parks, waterways, public transportation, and other public spaces of litter. Federal and local governments, NGOs, businesses, and individuals in the United States spend almost $11.5 billion yearly to clean up litter3

Paying cleanup crews is an avoidable spending that tends to be very costly. The taxpayers' money used to finance litter picking could instead go to other projects like road repairs.

Moreover, litter can result in economic losses. A business in a littered area will receive fewer visitors. Properties in a littered area will also likely experience a decrease in value. Litter problems will also discourage tourists from areas with great tourism potential.

In addition to the above points, littering undermines efforts to build a circular economy. It makes it quite challenging to recover recycled materials.

5 Ways To Prevent Littering

Litter continues to be a serious problem in many countries. The government and organized volunteers are making commendable efforts to combat litter, but littering outpaces cleanup efforts by far. 

To tackle the menace of littering, everyone must take up some environmental responsibility, from local governments to businesses and even school-age children. 

Below are five possible solutions to the litter pollution problem

1. Educate people.

One reason littering behavior persists is because many people are unaware of its harmful effects. Raising awareness can encourage people to take responsibility for the environment and stop littering.

Stakeholders can run anti-litter campaigns on TV, radio, and billboards. Social media platforms, newspapers, and bulletin boards are great outlets for spreading anti-litter education. Anti-littering signposts can also be placed in litter-prone areas.

Communities can also organize clean-up events to educate members about the ills of littering. Such grassroots efforts can have tremendous positive impacts.

2. Add more public garbage bins.

garbage bins
Photo by Nareeta Martin on Unsplash.

Easily accessible bins can deter littering. Carrying waste around for miles is inconvenient due to the scarcity of bins, so most people just litter.

Enough garbage bins should be installed along walking routes, near bus stops, in parks, town centers, and public vehicles. School authorities, business owners, apartment supervisors, homeowners, local governments, etc, should take responsibility for providing trash receptacles. 

Also, people organizing concerts, outdoor parties, and other events should provide bins as well as ensure that the waste is collected.

3. Develop better waste management systems.

garbage truck
Photo by James Day on Unsplash.

There needs to be more garbage bins in all the nooks and crannies; how the waste gets disposed of also matters. Overflowing bins allow trash to spill and litter the environment. Therefore, bins should be emptied regularly.

Sometimes, properly discarded trash can be littered if transported carelessly. When transporting garbage, keeping the bins or bags secured is essential. That way, they don't fly open in transit and spill on the way to the landfill or recycling center.

Furthermore, unsecured items can fall off pickup trucks and other types of vehicles and litter our roads. So, cargo should be properly secured to avoid accidental littering.

4. Do your part.

voluntary cleaning
Photo by CP Khanal on Pexels.

You have a vital role to play in the fight against littering. Your first obligation is not to litter, no matter how tempting it is. You can also educate yourself on reducing, reusing, and recycling.

Further, you can join organized community cleanups or pick up litter while running, jogging, hiking, or walking. You can also adopt a particular area prone to litter and clean it regularly.

Go further to organize cleanups and anti-litter campaigns. The goal is that you become an environmental steward and influence others to do the same. 

5. Enforce sanctions for littering.

In many States, illegal dumping and intentional littering attract fixed penalty notices, community service, and fines. Other penalties include suspension of driver's license or a 30-day imprisonment.

The problem is that local authorities do not do enough to punish offenders. Therefore, although people understand that it's illegal to litter, they still do it. 

Littering is serious, and there should be consequences for offenders. When folks see that some people are getting penalties for littering, they're more likely to obey anti-litter regulations.

Conclusion: Litter Pollution

Littering is a disservice that human beings do to themselves. It negatively affects communities, aids disease transmission, and kills animals. Every member of society must take some responsibility if we win against littering. Anyone who insists on carelessly tossing garbage around should be penalized with community service, at least.


Wiedinmyer, C., Yokelson, R. J., & Gullett, B. K. (2014b). Global Emissions of Trace Gases, Particulate Matter, and Hazardous Air Pollutants from Open Burning of Domestic Waste. Environmental Science & Technology, 48(16), 9523–9530.


Keep America Beautiful. (2021). Keep America Beautiful 2020 National Litter Study Summary Report.


Karimi, K., & Faghri, A. (2021). The Issues of Roadside Litter: A Review Paper. Current Urban Studies.

By Jennifer Okafor, BSc.

Jen’s a passionate environmentalist and sustainability expert. With a science degree from Babcock University Jen loves applying her research skills to craft editorial that connects with our global changemaker and readership audiences centered around topics including zero waste, sustainability, climate change, and biodiversity.

Elsewhere Jen’s interests include the role that future technology and data have in helping us solve some of the planet’s biggest challenges.

Fact Checked By:
Isabela Sedano, BEng.

Photo by Antoine GIRET on Unsplash.
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