What Happens When You Litter

Littering can be unintentional and it happens all around you. You see trash cans overflowing with waste spread around, plastic bottles left on the ground, or small broken down pieces of plastic at the beach. Littering happens everywhere and is often easy to ignore. However, the continuous mindset of “it’s only one plastic bag” or “someone else will pick it up” adds up as many people make the same assumptions. According to Keep America Beautiful, a non-profit organization, the most common types of litter are cigarette butts, paper, food wrappers, and sweets and napkins.

Littering, however, has an extremely negative impact on the environment. The plastic left on the ground can make its way to different ecosystems and be eaten by animals, be broken down into microplastics, and can harm many different species. In addition, plastic bags can be extremely harmful to the environment. Litter or trash can impact the structure of habitats. In oceans, trash can affect the homes that different species live in as well. Waste Management states that only one percent of plastic bags are recycled per year. For plastic that makes it to the ocean, marine life is in danger of consuming it or being caught in it. 100,000 marine species die from plastic bags annually. Not only does plastic in littered trash have harmful effects, but so do other forms of litter. 

Littering may be a careless act that doesn’t seem like it has much impact, or might even happen by accident, but it adds up. Litter removal is a larger effort than you doing your part to find a place to throw away your trash or find reusable alternatives to single-use items.

10 Tips To Avoid Littering:

  1. Bring reusable tupperware and utensils: instead of bringing food in single-use bags or packaging, store it in reusable tupperware to avoid having to carry around trash with you if there isn’t a place to throw your trash away and to reduce your carbon footprint as well. 
  2. Organize your trash: if you do have trash and you are in a place without a trash can, make sure to have a place acting as a temporary trash can or bag to make sure that you don’t accidentally leave trash behind. In addition, if it is windy, having a place to store the lightweight trash can avoid having it blow away.
  3. Know which products go in the trash vs in the recycling vs in the compost bins: many people put the wrong items into the wrong bins. General items that go into recycling bins include paper, cans, unbroken glass, and plastic that doesn’t crinkle (ex. water bottles vs plastic bag). It is very important that what you put in the recycling bin doesn’t have any food and is clean and dry. General items that go in trash bins include food storage (pizza boxes, candy wrappers, etc.), plastic bags, and used napkins. Some items that go in composting bins are grass clippings, non-animal product food scraps, leaves, and pet bedding for herbivores only. If you have a garden, consider composting yourself to make soil for your yard. However, what you put in compost, recycling, and trash bins varies depending on where you live. 
  4. Remind others if you see them littering: if you are hanging out with friends or family and you see them littering or if they drop some trash on accident, pick it up yourself or remind them to hold onto it until there is a place to throw it away.
  5. Participate in clean-ups: while this doesn’t fix the problem itself, it does improve the way an environment looks as well as helps prevent animals from being harmed from that trash.


“10 Facts About Single-Use Plastic Bags.” Biologicaldiversity.org, 2005, http://www.biologicaldiversity.org/programs/population_and_sustainability/sustainability/plastic_bag_facts.html.

“Here’s What You Can — and Can’t — Put in Your Recycling Bin.” Abc10.com, http://www.abc10.com/article/news/local/heres-what-you-can-and-cant-put-in-your-recycling-bin/103-433146234.

May, Ashley. “Worst Types of Litter: Plastic Straws Not Even in the Top 5.” USA TODAY, USA TODAY, 9 Aug. 2018, http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation-now/2018/08/09/plastic-straws-litter-common-trash-common-america/840806002/.

Shevtsova, Daria. “Aerial Photography of Seashore,” Pexels, 5 Dec. 2018, http://www.pexels.com/photo/aerial-photography-of-seashore-1680140/. Accessed 18 Dec. 2020.

“The Importance of Consignment Stores Recycling.” Sciencing, 2013, sciencing.com/importance-consignment-stores-recycling-4055.html.

US EPA,OW. “Impacts of Mismanaged Trash | US EPA.” US EPA, 7 Mar. 2019, http://www.epa.gov/trash-free-waters/impacts-mismanaged-trash.

“What to Compost (Ingredients) | Planet Natural.” Planet Natural, 2019, http://www.planetnatural.com/composting-101/making/what-to-use/.

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