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How Litter Harms Humans, Animals, and the Environment

Litter isn’t just an eyesore. Its effects reach far and wide, affecting every human in myriad ways, wildlife, bodies of water, and more. This article looks at some of the first-hand and secondary problems associated with loose trash.

How Litter Harms Humans, Animals, and the Environment

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Fire & Ice Team


May 17th, 2023

Trash. Litter. Garbage. Debris.

No matter what you call it, it’s unsightly, with fast-food wrappers and empty plastic bottles cluttering the landscape. Highways are especially susceptible, but litter is everywhere.

There are ways to minimize it - reduce, reuse, recycle - but its impact remains, and will remain, profound.

There’s nothing good to say about it, but there is plenty bad to say.

Two men picking up litter

The Effect of Litter on Society

The list of social problems caused by litter and trash is extensive. 

        Litter creates a variety of human health hazards because of the organisms attracted to it (bacteria, rats, roaches, and mosquitoes)

        Litter begets more litter. Studies have shown that when litter already exists, people are more likely to continue littering in that same area

        Similarly, if cigarette litter is allowed to accumulate, it may create a social norm, implying that it is acceptable behavior to litter cigarette butts

        When litter exists, some people perceive there to be more crime in the area compared to a place that does not have it

        Researchers found that litter increases crime

        In residential areas, litter has been found to decrease property value and in commercial areas, it decreases customers and reduces sales

        Houses that are for sale in littered neighborhoods usually don’t get their best prices.

        Fires started by litter (cigarettes, toxic materials, etc.) cause millions of dollars in damage every year

        Trash reduces the value of waterfront destinations because trash washed up on shorelines or floating in the water is unappealing and possibly unsafe

The Problem with Microplastics

Scientists have been studying microplastics, defined as particles measuring less than five millimeters (a fifth of an inch) across, for a quarter century. Microplastics are all over the globe, from the floor of the Mariana Trench to the summit of Mount Everest.

People can inhale or ingest these tiny, invisible plastic fibers floating in the air. They are in salt, beer, fresh fruit, vegetables, and drinking water. Researchers are studying the health effects, but there is no consensus about the harm it can inflict.

Expeditions to count microplastics in the ocean produce incomprehensible numbers. A peer-reviewed count published in 2014 put the total at five trillion - the equivalent of 30 billion half-liter plastic bottles.

Aquatic trash can lead to declining fish populations, which might hurt communities that rely on fisheries for subsistence, employment, income, and tourism. Furthermore, trash reduces the aesthetic and recreational value of waterfront destinations because trash washed up on shorelines or floating in the water is unappealing and possibly unsafe. Trash pollution can also cause damage to boats if the material tangles propellers or clogs vessel intakes.

Clean-up of Litter Comes out of Taxpayers’ Wallets

Just in Ohio, ODOT estimates they’ve spent around 40 million dollars over the last 10 years to pick up litter along highways. That’s more than 400,000 bags of trash.

And when ODOT has to spend money on clean-up, that’s resources they cannot spend on salting roads, plowing snow, filling potholes, or making improvements.

Municipalities pay for this through taxation, meaning that even those who do not litter still have to pay the price for those who actually do it.

Discarded cardboard

Litter Can Contribute to the Spread of Diseases

Litter can be a breeding ground for bacteria, which can lead to outbreaks of diseases such as cholera and typhoid if the litter gets into water sources or is carried by pets and birds into our homes. Mosquitos thrive in stagnant, filthy water.

Litter can also cause injury or diseases by directly introducing pathogens to individuals. This can happen in cases where the litter is glass or metal, such as rusty tins or contaminated glass/needles/blades.

The Black Death (bubonic plague) wiped out over a third of Europe and spread to other continents. It was spread by human contact, but also through flea-ridden rats that fed on garbage in the streets.

Disruption of the Waterways

Loose plastic litter follows the path of water after heavy rains and will eventually end up in drainage pipes and sewer channels. In the short run, it can create mini-floods on roadways and provide a breeding ground for insects.

With time, the litter clogs up the sieves that lie inside the pipes. The clogs then block the drainage pipes or water passages, which can cause the pipes to burst.

Flooding of raw sewage has a strong correlation to the outbreak and spread of diseases, such as typhoid, cholera, and malaria.

Man picking up litter

Trash Is an Eyesore

Littering lowers the aesthetic value of a region. In other words, being in a littered area is uncomfortable and unpleasant.

Consequently, littering can discourage business and tourism because people don’t want to be in a polluted area. The property value declines.

Littering Leads to Soil, Water, and Air Pollution

The hazardous waste that comes from consumers can contaminate the soil. The soil absorbs toxins, which will affect plants and crops.

Animals living in the area then eat those crops or worms that live in the soil and may become sick. It also causes health issues in humans who consume either the crops or the animals feeding on infected agriculture.

If algae and plankton are threatened, the entire food web may change. Animals that feed on algae and plankton, such as fish and turtles, will have less food. If populations of those animals decrease, there will be less food for predators such as tuna, sharks, and whales.

The toxic water may kill off surrounding plant life on riverbanks and the bottom of a pond’s ecosystem.

The contaminated water can be ingested by fish and a variety of other animals. Humans can also become sick after eating animals that have ingested polluted water.

Burning Pollution Isn’t the Answer

About 40 percent of the world’s garbage is burned, according to the study “Toxic Pollutants from Plastic Waste – A Review.”

It’s an easy way to get rid of litter, but it has serious drawbacks. Burning plastics releases toxic gasses such as dioxins, furan, mercury, and polychlorinated biphenyls (better known as PCPs) into the atmosphere.

The pollutants can cause respiratory issues and other health problems in humans and other living beings.

The good news is the ash left behind after a fire can be used in roadways, as construction material, and even as a fertilizer if the waste is organic.

And it’s expensive to trap the waste material that gets exhausted in the air, but it can be done.

Algal Blooms

Algal blooms are the result of large amounts of algae in a waterway. The latest major event to hit Lake Erie was in 2022. Blooms happen when litter finds its way to lakes and oceans. Organic trash decomposes and releases nutrients that the algae use.

The algae form a carpet-like layer on the surface of the water, which is hazardous to the marine life below it, as it prevents oxygen from diffusing into the water. Some algae may also produce toxins that poison the aquatic animals, leading to their deaths.

Algal bloom

Chemical Contamination of Soil

The environment is adversely affected by litter, especially if it is chemical in nature. In terrestrial environments, the litter can accumulate, leading to slow seepage of contaminants such as heavy metals into the soil. This is particularly the case when electrical components such as cellphone batteries are not properly disposed of.

In waterways, litter runoff can disrupt the pH balance of the water and the nutrient content, causing ripple effects on the plant and animal ecosystem beneath.

Litter in the water supply and runoff from litter into water bodies can create a toxic environment. The polluted water may kill off surrounding plant life on riverbanks and the bottom of a pond’s ecosystem.

The contaminated water can get when ingested by fish and a variety of other animals. Humans can also become sick if they eat animals that have ingested dirty water.

The Problems with Plastic

Now the world’s most abundant plastic, polyethylene was a wonder material when it was introduced: strong, flexible, lightweight, and heat-resistant.

The first PET (polyethylene terephthalate, a form of polyester) bottle was patented in 1973, and it has many advantages over glass: lightweight for transport and virtually unbreakable.

Its popularity as a container for water especially has boomed in the 21st century. Today, around 500 billion PET bottles are sold every year.

Plastic pollution is particularly worrisome because it does not fully biodegrade. Plastic litter has been found in a wide range of organisms and habitats, including coral reefs, estuaries, beaches, and the deep sea.

You may have heard of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch (GPGP). It’s not the only trash heap floating in the ocean — it’s just the biggest. The GPGP covers an estimated surface area of 1.6 million square kilometers, an area twice the size of Texas.

The Atlantic and Indian Oceans both have similar patches.

The seafloor beneath the Great Pacific Garbage Patch may also be an underwater trash heap. About 70 percent of marine debris sinks to the bottom of the ocean.

80 percent of the plastic in the ocean is estimated to come from land-based sources, with the remaining 20 percent coming from boats and other marine sources. Because the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is so far from any country’s coastline, no nation will take responsibility or provide the funding to clean it up.

Garbage patch in ocean

The Problems with Landfills

Historically, landfills are the most common means of disposing of solid waste. Some landfills are well-managed and designed as part of integrated waste management (materials that can be recycled get separated).

However, most communities leave the landfills unattended. Because most of these waste materials are non-biodegradable, they pile up where they stay for years. These remnants can be toxic and can contaminate the land and water resources.

As an example, oil refinery processes produce petroleum hydrocarbon byproducts, while construction works generate wood, plastics, and metal wastes. Industrial manufacturing, power generation, and construction projects are regulated, but their byproducts and residues can find their way to landfills.

With the increase in population, the demand for manufactured products and materials increases. As the demand increases, so does the increase in waste.

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Even a Little Litter Is a Big Problem

There are solutions out there. After all, people have been dealing with litter for centuries. Some methods have had success; others created more harm than good (e.g. burning trash).

The catchwords “reduce, reuse, recycle” have been around since the 1970s. It has made a difference, and more and more materials are being made with this motto in mind. Turning old food and yard waste into compost is a help.

Small steps can make a difference.

At Fire & Ice, we are taking some significant steps because we want our and your community to be something you’re proud of. Starting in the summer of 2023, we are partnering with ODOT and approved vendors to clean litter from 200 miles of Central Ohio highways monthly, as well as working with local communities to pick up litter during community-wide events.

We want to make our city a better place to live, work, and visit.

Stay tuned for news and updates surrounding our campaign.

Read more:

History of Litter: Problems and Solutions From the Ancient Syrians to the Present Day
Litter: What Is It, Where Does It Come From, and Why Is It a Problem?
Can You Recycle It? Take Our Quiz and Find Out!
An Introduction to Recycling

Interested in more things HVAC?

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Litter 101

Learn about the damage that litter can do to our environment, and the solutions we can work towards.

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