For other uses, see Litter (disambiguation).
Litter consists of waste products that have been disposed improperly, without consent, at an inappropriate location. Litter can also be used as a verb. To litter means to drop and leave objects, often man-made, such as aluminum cans, cardboard boxes or plastic bottles on the ground and leave them there indefinitely or for others to dispose of as opposed to disposing of them properly.
Large and hazardous items of rubbish such as tires, electrical appliances, electronics, batteries and large industrial containers are sometimes dumped in isolated locations, such as national forests and other public land.
It is a human impact on the environment and remains a serious environmental issue in many countries. Litter can exist in the environment for long periods of time before degrading and be transported large distances into the world's oceans. Litter can affect quality of life.
Cigarette butts are the most littered item in the world, with 4.5 trillion discarded annually. Estimates on the required time for cigarette butts to break down vary. They range from five years to 400 years for complete degradation.
In addition to intentional littering, almost half of litter on U.S. roadways is now accidental or unintentional litter, usually debris that falls off improperly secured trash, recycling collection vehicles and pickup trucks. Population levels, traffic density and proximity to waste disposal sites are factors known to correlate with higher litter rates.
Illegally dumped hazardous waste may be a result of the costs of dropping materials at designated sites: some of these charge a fee for depositing hazardous material. Lack of access to nearby facilities that accept hazardous waste may deter use. Additionally, ignorance of the laws that regulate the proper disposal of hazardous waste may cause improper disposal.
According to a study by the Dutch organization VROM, 80% of people claim that "everybody leaves a piece of paper, tin or something, on the street behind". Young people from 12 to 24 years cause more litter than the average (Dutch or Belgian) person; only 18% of people who regularly cause litter were 50 years of age or older. However, a 2010 survey of littering in Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont in the United States, placed litterers aged 55 and over at less than 5%. The same observational study estimated that 78% of litterers are male. In 1999, research by Keep America Beautiful found that 75% of Americans admitted to littering the last five years, yet 99% of the same individuals admitted that they enjoyed a clean environment.
Negligent or lenient law enforcement contributes to littering behavior. Other causes are inconvenience, entitlement and economic conditions. A survey of dumping in Pennsylvania found that the largest number of illegal dumps were in townships without municipal trash hauling. The same report also cites unavailability of curbside trash and recycling service, shortage of enforcement, and habit as possible causes. The presence of litter invites more littering.
Two-stage process model
The two-stage process model of littering behavior describes the different ways in which people litter. The model was proposed by Chris Sibley and James Liu and differentiates between two types of littering: active and passive.
The theory has implications for understanding the different types of litter reduction interventions that will most effectively reduce littering in a given environment. The theory states that, all things being equal, passive littering will be more resistant to change because of two psychological processes: 1. diffusion of responsibility that increases as the latency between when an individual places litter in the environment and when they vacate the territory, and 2. forgetting, which is also more likely to occur at longer delays between when an individual places litter in the environment and when they vacate the territory.
Litter can remain visible for extended periods of time before it eventually biodegrades, with some items made of condensed glass, styrofoam or plastic possibly remaining in the environment for over a million years.
About 18 percent of litter, usually traveling through stormwater systems, ends up in local streams, rivers, and waterways. Uncollected litter can accrete and flow into streams, local bays and estuaries. Litter in the ocean either washes up on beaches or collects in Ocean gyres such as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. About 80 percent of marine debris comes from land-based sources.
Some litter that is collected can be recycled, however degraded litter cannot be recycled and eventually degrades to sludge, often toxic. The majority of litter that is collected goes to landfills.
Litter can have a detrimental impact on humans and the environment in different ways.
Effects on humans
Hazardous materials encapsulated within tires and other items of illegally dumped rubbish can leach into water sources, contaminate the soil and pollute the air.
Tires are the most often dumped hazardous waste. In 2007 the United States generated 262 million scrap tires. Thirty-eight states have laws that ban whole tires being deposited in landfills. Many of these discarded tires end up illegally dumped on public lands. Tires can become a breeding ground for insect vectors which can transmit disease to humans.Mosquitoes, which breed in stagnant water, can transmit West Nile virus and malaria. Rodents nest in accumulated tires and can transmit diseases such as Hantavirus.
When tires are burned they can smolder for long periods of time, emitting hundreds of chemical compounds that pollute the air causing respiratory illnesses. Additionally the residue left behind can harm the soil and leach into groundwater.
Visual pollution is a major effect of litter.
Open containers such as paper cups, cardboard food packets, plastic drinks bottles and aluminum drinks cans may fill up with rainwater, providing breeding locations for mosquitoes. In addition, a spark or a lightning flash can start a fire if it strikes litter such as a paper bag or cardboard box.
Litter can be hazardous to health. Debris falling from vehicles is an increasing cause of automobile accidents. Discarded dangerous goods, chemicals, tires, sharps waste and pathogens resulting from litter can cause accidental harm to humans.
Litter also carries substantial cost to the economy. Cleaning up litter in the US costs hundreds of dollars per ton, about ten times more than the cost of trash disposal, with a cost totaling about $11 billion per year.
Effects on wildlife
Animals may get trapped or poisoned with litter in their habitats. Cigarette butts and filters are a threat to wildlife and have been found in the stomachs of fish, birds and whales, who have mistaken them for food. Also animals can get trapped in the rubbish and be in serious discomfort. For example, the plastic used to hold beverage cans together can get wrapped around animals' necks and cause them to suffocate as they grow. Other instances where animals could be harmed by litter include broken glass lacerating the paws of dogs, cats, and other small mammals.
Most litter in Victoria, Australia ends up in or near oceans, beaches or rivers.
Organic litter in large amounts can cause water pollution and lead to algal blooms. Cigarettes could also start fires if they are not put out and then discarded in the environment.
Litter is an environmental issue in many countries around the world. While countries in the developing world lack the resources to deal with the issue, consumer based economies in the western world are capable of generating larger quantities of litter per capita due to a higher consumption of disposable products.
A number of credible studies have shown that fast food packaging is one of the most common forms of litter while McDonald's is the most common brand of litter, despite having messages to dispose of properly, such as the Ronald McDonald "tidy man" marking.
Main article: Waste container
Public waste containers or street bins are provided by local authorities to be used as a convenient place for the disposal and collection of litter. Increasingly both general waste and recycling options are provided. Local councils pick the waste up and take it to reuse or recycling. However, there are issues with this approach. If the bins are not regularly emptied, then overfilling of bins occurs and can increase litter indirectly. Some local authorities will only take responsibility for rubbish that is placed in the bins, which means that litter remains a problem. People may blame a lack of well-placed bins for their littering. Hazardous materials may be incorrectly disposed of in the bins and they can encourage dumpster diving.
Volunteers, sometimes alone or coordinated through organizations, pick up litter and dispose of it. Clean up events may be organized in which participants will sometimes comb an area in a line to ensure that no litter is missed. In North America, Adopt a Highway programs are popular, in which companies and organizations commit to cleaning stretches of road. In Kiwayu, a Kenyan island, some of the collected litter (flip-flops) is used to make art, which is then sold.
Picking up litter can be hazardous to health. Hazards can include spinal damage through repeated bending, and exposure to dangerous goods, sharps waste and pathogens. As a result, safety equipment such as gloves is sometimes worn and tools such as reach extenders are used.
Litter traps can be used to capture litter as it exits stormwater drains into waterways. However, litter traps are only effective for large or floating items of litter and must be maintained. A recent watershed litter survey showed a difference in the composition of street litter and stormwater litter.
Monitoring dumping sites
Increasingly, there have been efforts to use technology to monitor areas prone to dumping. In Japan, a study used Geographic Information Systems (GIS) to map areas of dumping based on site characteristics. Another study used satellite images to detect possible illegal dumping sites. 
Container deposit legislation
Container deposit legislation can be aimed at both reducing littering and also encouraging picking up through local recycling programs that offer incentives, particularly for aluminium cans, glass bottles and plastic bottles. In New York, an expanded bottle bill that included plastic water bottles increased recycling rates and generated 120 million dollars in revenue to the state General Fund from unclaimed deposits in 2010.
In some countries such as Germany and the Netherlands, container deposit legislation has been introduced on cans and plastic bottles. Parts of Belgium are also considering adopting such legislation. People can thus collect refund value money from this type of waste. The result of this is that in Germany, hardly any cans or plastic bottles can still be found along the road. In the Netherlands, the amount of litter has dropped considerably since the new law was implemented, and 95% of the plastic bottles are now recycled. According to Chris Snick, the revenue that can be obtained from waste picking can be financially profitable in countries where container deposit legislation has been introduced: in 1 hour he managed to pick up 108 cans and 31 plastic bottles, earning him 13.90 euro (€0.10 per can/plastic bottle). By comparison, in countries where only the value of the aluminum for example would be refunded, 139 cans would yield only 1.72 euro (0.0124 euro per can; assuming there is 15 grams of aluminum in a can, and with scrap aluminum valued at 0.8267 euro/kg).
Some countries and local authorities have introduced legislation to address the problem.
Actions resulting in fines can include on-the-spot fines for individuals administered by authorised officers in public or on public transport or littering from a vehicle, in which the vehicle owner is fined - reported by either responsible officer or third party, sometimes online.
Specific legislation exists in the following countries:
- United States - punishable with a more than $500 fine, community service, or both, as set out by state statutes and city ordinances. All 50 states have anti-litter laws, with various fines, community service, and/or imprisonment as possible punishment.
- United Kingdom - Leaving litter is an offence under the Environmental Protection Act 1990. This was extended by the Clean Neighbourhoods and Environment Act 2005 under section 18. It carries a maximum penalty of £2500 upon conviction. However, many local authorities issue fixed penalty notices under section 88 of the Environmental Protection Act 1990. Often incorrectly known as "on the spot fines", they do not have to be issued on the spot. Nor are they a fine. If an alleged offender does not want to pay a fixed penalty notice, he can have the case heard in the Magistrates Court.
- Australia - no national legislation, although state based environmental protection authorities have laws and fines to discourage littering.
- The Netherlands - Dutch police and local supervisors (known as buitengewoon opsporingsambtenaar, or BOA) fine citizens for throwing away cans, bottles or wrappers on the street.
Many groups exist with the aim of raising awareness and run campaigns including clean up events. World Cleanup Day is a worldwide campaign.
In the United States there are a number of organizations running anti-litter campaigns. Keep America Beautiful was founded in 1953. At least 38 states have high profile, government-recognized slogan campaigns, including Don't Mess with Texas; Let's Pick It Up New York; Don't Trash California; Take Pride in Florida; Keep Iowa Beautiful.
In Australia, Clean Up Australia Day is supported by many major Australian companies, firms and volunteers alike. Anti-litter organizations include "Keep Australia Beautiful", founded in 1963. It created the popular "Do the Right Thing" campaign and its Tidy Towns competition became well known being a very competitive expression of civic pride.
Keep Britain Tidy is a British campaign run by the Keep Britain Tidy environmental charity, which is part funded by the UK government.
Throughout human history, people have disposed of unwanted materials onto streets, roadsides, in small local dumps or often in remote locations. Prior to reforms within cities in the mid-to-late 19th century, sanitation was not a government priority. The growing piles of waste led to the spread of disease.
Anti-littering legislation seems to have existed in ancient Greece, as is evidenced by a road marker discovered on the island of Paros, bearing the inscription "whoever drops their litter on the street owes 51 drachmae to whoever wishes to claim them".
To address the growing amount of waste generated in the United States, the Solid Waste Disposal Act of 1965 was enacted. In 1976 the Federal government amended the Solid Waste Disposal Act, creating the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA), which requires a "cradle to grave" approach to the proper handling of potentially hazardous materials. RCRA gives authority to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to regulate and enforce proper hazardous waste disposal. Many countries now have laws that require that household hazardous waste be deposited in a special location rather than sent to landfills with regular refuse. Household hazardous waste includes paints and solvents, chemicals, light bulbs, fluorescent lights, spray cans, and yard products such as fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides and insecticides. Additionally, medical waste generated at home is considered a hazardous waste and must be disposed of properly.
- ^Novotny, T.E. & Zhao, F. (1999). Consumption and production waste: another externality of tobacco use. Tobacco Control, 8, 75-80.
- ^"Littering Information". Archived from the original on October 6, 2012. Retrieved 2013-02-03.
- ^"Umweltthemen Zigaretten". Retrieved 2014-04-05.
- ^Greve, Frank. "Mcclathydc.com". Mcclatchydc.com. Retrieved 2012-02-21.
- ^ ab"Erplanning.com"(PDF). Retrieved 2012-02-21.
- ^"NJClean.org"(PDF). Retrieved 2012-02-21.
- ^"Debris Wreaks Havoc on the Road - ABC News". Abcnews.go.com. 2007-05-15. Retrieved 2012-02-21.
- ^Leigh, Patricia (2007-05-11). "Highway Debris, Long an Eyesore, Grows as Hazard - NYTimes.com". California: New York Times. Retrieved 2012-02-21.
- ^ abNortheast 2010 Litter Survey, Retrieved 2012.05.16
- ^"Illegal Dumping Prevention Guidebook"(pdf). Retrieved 2013-02-03.
- ^"Volunteers Pick Up Litter in Sabana Park". Retrieved 2013-02-03.
- ^Retrieved 2012-05-15 Illegal dump survey finds a lot of trash -- and a buffalo head
- ^'PA CleanWays - Keep Pennsylvania Beautiful: Illegal Dump Survey Final Report York County 2010
- ^Dur, Robert; Vollaard, Ben. "The Power of a Bad Example – A Field Experiment in Household Garbage Disposal"(PDF). Retrieved Jul 2, 2012.
- ^Sibley, C.G., & Liu, J.H. (2003). Differentiating active and passive littering: A two-stage process model of littering behavior in public spaces. Environment and Behavior, 35, 415–433.
- ^Brody, Jeremy (10 January 1998). "Teaching Leave No Trace. (Editorial)". blm.gov. Archived from the original on 14 August 2007. Retrieved 14 October 2009.
- ^Christina Macfarlane, for CNN. "CNN.com". CNN.com. Retrieved 2012-02-21.
- ^Faris, J. and Hart, K., Seas of Debris: A Summary of the Third International Conference on Marine Debris, N.C. Sea Grant College Program and NOAA, 1994, title page.
- ^"Waste Tires - Waste 2 Resources Program - Washington State Department of Ecology". Retrieved May 5, 2012.
- ^Basic information/scrap tires retrieved 05/15/2012
- ^ abcHealth and Environmental Concerns /Tires retrieved 05/15/2012
- ^"ABCnews.go.com". ABCnews.go.com. 2007-05-15. Retrieved 2012-02-21.
- ^Newsobserver.comArchived August 5, 2009, at the Wayback Machine.
- ^Victorian Litter Action Alliance (VLAA). "Litter Statistics Fact Sheet"(PDF). Retrieved 10 January 2018.
- ^Litter management - Townsville City CouncilArchived March 28, 2011, at the Wayback Machine.
- ^cowen. "Study reveals McDonalds to be pick of the litter". thesatellite.com.au. Retrieved March 1, 2013.
- ^McGregorTan Research, Keep Australia Beautiful National Branded Litter Study Annual Results 2011/12, Retrieved 16 January 2016.
- ^The FlipFlop Recycling Company
- ^"UniquEco: The Flip Flop Project | Artisans". Swahili-imports.com. Retrieved 2012-11-06.
- ^Tasaki, T; Kawahata, T; Osako, M; Matsui, Y; Takagishi, S; Morita, A; Akishima, S (2007). "A GIS-based zoning of illegal dumping potential for efficient surveillance". Waste Management. 27 (2): 256–67. doi:10.1016/j.wasman.2006.01.018. PMID 16531036.
- ^Kosako, A; Miyazaki, S; Inoue, U; Tasaki, T; Osako, M; Tamura, M (2009). "Detection of Illegal Dumping Sites by Using Vegetation Index and Land Surface Feature from High Resolution Satellite Images". Journal of the Remote Sensing Society of Japan. 29 (3): 497–514. doi:10.11440/rssj.29.497 (inactive 2017-08-19).
- ^"Bottle Bills in the News". Retrieved May 16, 2012.
- ^"Wallonië wil statiegeld op blik invoeren". De Standaard.
- ^Het Nieuwsblad, 23 august 2014; "13.90 euro voor wat gedeulte blikjes, geen slecht uurloon"
- ^"How To Make Money Selling Scrap Metal".
- ^"If you've been reported - EPA Victoria". Epa.vic.gov.au. Retrieved 2012-02-21.
- ^Legislatures, National Conference of State. "States with Littering Penalties".
- ^"Public Information Films : 1964 to 1979 : Film index : Keep Britain Tidy". Nationalarchives.gov.uk. Retrieved 2012-02-21.
- ^"73. Στήλη λευκού Παριακού μαρμάρου ελλιπής κάτω". Retrieved 2017-12-16.
- ^RCRA Orientation Manual: Managing Nonhazardous Solid Waste Retrieved 2012-05-15.
- ^"Resource Conservation and Recovery Act". Retrieved 2013-02-03.
- Media related to Littering at Wikimedia Commons
Don't Litter & Pick Litter Up
In 2006, every person in the United States generated 4.6 pounds of waste per day.
By Haley A. Wilhite
Most people today are aware of the more typical ways to become an "Everyday Environmentalist" — use compact fluorescent bulbs, get energy efficient appliances, try to commute on foot or by bicycle.
But that awareness doesn’t seem to be translating into green actions. Based on the latest Harris Poll, only 3 percent of all Americans have switched to energy-efficient light bulbs; and only 4 percent have taken steps to reduce their utility useage.
So maybe it's time to do something even smaller, something with a rich tradition — like not littering and picking up litter where you find it.
Litter is Still a Problem
According to the Environmental Protection Agency, in 2006 every person in the United States generated 4.6 pounds of waste per day.
But only 32.5 percent of that was recovered and recycled or composted, while 12.5 percent was burned at combustion facilities, and the remaining 55 percent ended up in landfills…or not.
For instance, the Independent (a U.K. newspaper) reported in February 2008 that a "plastic soup" of waste twice the size of the continental United States is floating in the Pacific Ocean — and growing at an alarming rate. Four-fifths of this 100 million tons of trash has come from land.
The United Nations Environment Programme reports that plastic debris causes the deaths of more than 1 million seabirds and 100,000 marine mammals every year.
In fact, Keep America Beautiful, a volunteer-based action and education organization, found that 18 percent of all littered items end up in streams and waterways as pollution. And a fire starts somewhere in the world every 12 minutes because of litter.
Pick Up Litter — On Your Own or in a Group
Keep America Beautiful has a list of things you can do to prevent litter — from adopting a spot in your town to keep litter-free on a regular basis to giving out litter bags at events.
Or you can do what I do: Anytime I see trash, I simply pick it up. Then I find the nearest actual trash receptacle (or preferably a recycling can) and dispose of it.
It’s something I’ve been doing ever since I was a kid growing up in a small Tennessee town. To occupy my time, I would pick up the litter on my street to keep it looking beautiful.
As I grew up, I realized that telling my friends to keep a small trash bag in their vehicle kept them from throwing litter out the window (at least while I was riding with them). And today, I just utilize whatever I have — a tissue, a bag, an empty cup in the car — to pick up litter and dispose of it correctly.
Take Litter Personally
As a long-time environmental steward of the Earth, my personal mission has been to clean-up litter wherever I can. I also share this mission with others, especially my own friends and family.
For many years I have served as an advocate against littering. Any person who has spent time with me knows if I’m around, you’re not going to throw that gum wrapper on the ground and get away with it!
So whether I’m just walking in and out of a business or riding down the road, I always try to do my part to keep our environment tidy.
Sure, it's very small — but it's a start. And the price to nature of not doing it is all too clear.
The opinions expressed in this article are the author's and do not represent those of The Nature Conservancy.