5 Facts About Litter: Littering Must Stop!

There is nothing that ruins a beach trip like something touching your foot or wrapping itself around your leg. For many, that is enough to keep them on the sand for the duration of the visit. Sadly, more times than not, that thing that touches your foot is not something that came from nature. Litter is taking over our planet and there is little that people are doing to stop it. Educating yourself about what litter is and why littering is so incredibly harmful is the first step to making a change.

What is litter?

Litter is any type of trash that is disposed of incorrectly, so this includes cigarette butts thrown from the window of a car, bottles dropped at a park, paper and plastic left to fly around our neighborhoods, and old furniture thrown down a rural hill.

The most common places to find litter are along the roads and in the ocean. Many drivers would rather throw their trash from their windows than wait and find a trash can when they reach their destination. Other people do not want to pay for trash removal, so they dispose of their trash along the sides of the road or in the closest wooded location. The West Virginia Department of Transportation found that when people are on the move they tend to drop or throw their trash on the ground rather than throw it in a disposal can. Worst of all, people are doing this because they find it too inconvenient to find a proper way to throw their trash away.

How long does it take for litter to decompose?

In Water

  • Paper - 2-4 weeks to decompose
  • Fruit Peels - about 2 years
  • Cigarette butts - 1-5 years
  • Plastic bags - 10-20 years
  • Plastic bottles - 450 years
  • ​Fishing nets and wire - 600 years
  • Glass - 1 million years

On Land

  • Aluminum Cans - 80-200 Years
  • Paper - 2-6 weeks
  • Food waste - 6 months
  • Styrofoam - Never
  • Tinfoil - Never

Who is more likely to litter?

According to a study in Tennessee, the older people get the more likely they are to properly dispose of their trash. There was a correlation between people's age and knowledge and the probability they will dispose of their trash in a bin. Another national study found that those that deliberately litter are between the ages of 18 and 34. It is also noted that men are littering more than women. Another study done in Tennessee discovered that 8% of men are littering on a daily basis, while 2% of women are littering daily. Motorists and pedestrians are the top litterbugs. People who are driving contribute about 52% of the litter we see, while pedestrians add about 23%.

What are the consequences of littering?

Ocean Animals


Each year approximately 1.9 tons of litter finds it’s way to the ocean, and 50% of the littered items happen to be cigarette butts. It is estimated that in the ocean there are about 300 billion pounds of just plastic trash floating around and sunken on the floor. This number increases, as there are about 1.4 billion pounds of litter added each year.

As a result of ocean litter, 1 million seabirds, 100,000 turtles, many marine mammals, and many seals are killed every year because of litter in the ocean. Birds get tangled in the trash and this can strangle them or break their legs and wings. They also ingest it and choke to death. Sea turtles have been found with plastic straws stuck up their nostrils or tangled in fishing wire unable to swim properly. Whales are ingesting tin cans and other plastics. One example of the impact our littering and trash is having on the ocean is The Great Pacific Garbage Patch. This is a giant mass of trash that is twice the size of France and continues to grow each day.

Land Animals

On dry land things are not looking much brighter. Rabbits have a tendency of eating cigarette butts. Since they cannot digest the butts, the litter remains in their stomachs. Once they have eaten enough of them, they starve to death because they feel full, when in reality they are just full of trash that cannot be digested for any sort of nutrients. Birds have been found who have died from choking on litter such as gum, cigarette butts, and plastics.

Litter is also harmful to the environment. Trash and litter have been associated with the unbalance of the ecosystem. Litter provides a breeding ground for many insects and rodents. When these number increase without proper predators being present to control the numbers, the pest numbers just continue to grow.

Littering also tends to lead to wildfires. Heat or a spark can catch litter on fire and destroy the homes of people and many animals. If a cigarette is not put out properly, it can catch other litter or dry leaves on fire. When a piece of litter is not biodegradable, it must be broken down with chemicals. This is obviously dangerous to the environment for numerous reasons. The litter that does decompose is causing an increase in greenhouse gases and making the air we breathe toxic. This greenhouse gas is a huge reason why our ozone layer is being destroyed.

What can be done?

Littering can be decreased if we each do our part, but it is unrealistic to think that everyone will get onboard with decreasing trash and littering, but we can do our best. This can start with you. So start by setting a simple example to your children, co-workers, and friends by properly disposing of your trash. Place plastics and paper in recycle bins and other trash in their proper disposal bins. If you see litter, pick it up and throw it away. Keep a litterbag in your vehicles. When you do have some trash keep in the litterbag and throw it away properly when you reach your destination.

For those of you who live in communities, make sure that your trash can lids are fastened tightly and that all of your trash bags are tightly closed. When you are taking your pet for a walk, use newspaper to pick up their waste. This will help the waste to biodegrade faster and the paper will decompose with it as well. Doing this will actually help the soil become richer and reduces a large amount of plastic waste.


If you are a smoker, use a portable ashtray in your car instead of throwing them out of your window. This will ensure that they are put out completely and disposed of correctly. There are even programs that allow smokers to ship their smoking waste to be recycled. Terracycle is a great example of this. Their program accepts all sorts of smoking waste, and they break each piece of waster down into its different components and melt them into plastics that can be used for other products.

For those of you that want to do more, you can get involved in the litter reduction community. Either get involved with companies and organizations that are against littering or do something to support them. Such organizations include Keep America Beautiful, Clean Up the World, Keep Baltic Tidy, Ocean Conservancy, Project AWARE Foundation, and the National Anti-Litter Group. There are a lot of other organizations that are supporting the battle against litter. Do your research and see which one you would like to associate with.

Keep it Clean

When you go hiking or visit the beach, the trash and litter is noticeable and takes away from the beauty of the environment. In addition to that, littering is a leading cause of death in marine and animal life. There are hundreds of thousands of lives being lost to litter each year. Finally, these losses in numbers are causing numerous animals and species to join the endangered species list and it is creating an unbalance in the ecosystems. As you can see, the environment is imploring us all to do our part and help put a stop to littering.

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References: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14.

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Craig Scott

I love to spend all the time I can outdoors and find every excuse to leave my house. I write about everything about our planet and I edit even more of it. I hope you'll join me in making the Earth a cleaner and greener place!

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