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Littering in Stockholm, Sweden

Litter consists of waste products that have been disposed improperly, without consent, in an inappropriate location. Litter can also be used as a verb. To litter means to throw (often man-made) objects onto the ground and leave them as opposed to disposing of them properly. While most litter is associated with containers, wrappers and paper product; dumped items may include furniture, appliances ( white goods), old electronics ( e-waste), abandoned vehicles or construction materials. These categories of waste often contain hazardous materials. The distinction between littering and illegal dumping is sometimes defined by volume or the location of the disposed of waste. Illegally dumped items containing hazardous waste can harm the environment and have a potentially negative impact on human health.

Larger hazardous items such as tires, appliances, electronics and large industrial containers are often dumped in isolated locations, such as National Forests and other public land.

It is a human impact on the environment and is 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. Cigarette butts can take up to five years to completely break down. It is surprising that statistics in 2003 showed metal/aluminium drink cans as the least littered item when drinks are more of a necessity than cigarettes.


Platform of Strathfield station in Sydney, Australia. Rubbish accumulated over months, perhaps years due to unsustained periods of frequent cleaning

Throughout human history, people have disposed of unwanted materials without fear of retribution, 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.

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.


In addition to intentional littering, almost half of litter on U.S. roadways is now a result of accidental or unintentional litter, usually debris that falls off of 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. Government neglect, the inability of governments to remove litter in a timely manner, is also a reason why humans are tempted to litter. hi

Illegally dumped hazardous waste may be affected by the costs associated with dropping materials at designated sites; some facilities charge a fee for depositing hazardous material. 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 have an impact on proper disposal.

According to a study by the Dutch organization VROM, 80 percent of the people claim that "everybody leaves of 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. Eighteen percent 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 five percent. The same observational study estimated the overall average of litterers to be 78 percent male. Nevertheless, automobile drivers and recreationalists, smokers and youth are specific target groups within many campaigns conducted to keep countries free of litter. 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 they enjoyed a clean environment.

Negligent or lenient law enforcement contributes to littering behaviour. 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 behaviour 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.

Life cycle

Litter can remain either 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 harm humans and the environment in different ways.

Effects on humans

These tires were discarded on the Middle Branch of Baltimore Harbour in this photo from 1973. Tire dumping is still a concern today and could benefit from tire recycling.

Hazardous materials contained within litter and illegally dumped rubbish can leach into water sources, contaminate 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 and compounds that pollute the air causing respiratory illnesses. Additionally the residue left behind can harm the soil and leach into groundwater.

This bolus from a Hawaiian albatross (either a Black-footed Albatross or a Laysan Albatross) has several ingested flotsam items, including monofilament from fishing nets and a discarded toothbrush. Ingestion of plastic flotsam is an increasing hazard for albatrosses, Tern Island, French Frigate Shoals.

Visual pollution is a major effect of litter.

Open containers such as paper cups or beverage cans can hold rainwater, providing breeding locations for mosquitoes. In addition, a spark has the potential to hit a piece of litter like a paper bag which could start a fire.

Litter can be hazardous. Debris falling from vehicles is an increasing cause of automobile accidents. Over 800 Americans are killed each year in debris/litter-attributed motor vehicle collisions. Discarded dangerous goods, 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 U.S. costs hundreds of dollars per ton, about ten times more than the cost of trash disposal, for 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 effects

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.


Litter bins

Recycling and rubbish bin in a German railway station.

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 refuse 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.

Picking up

Naval Nuclear Power Training Command student volunteers dispose of used tires littering the waterways of Naval Weapons Station Charleston, North Carolina.

Volunteers, sometimes alone or coordinated through organisations will pick up litter and dispose of it. Clean up events may be organised where 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, where companies and organizations commit to cleaning stretches of road. Increasingly, geocaching is used (see Cache In Trash Out). In Kiwayu, a Kenyan island, some of the collected litter (flip-flops) is used for making art, which is then sold (see FlipFlop Recycling Company).

Picking up litter can be hazardous. Hazards can include exposure to dangerous goods, sharps waste and pathogens. As a result, safety equipment is sometimes worn and tools such as litter grabbers (extendable arms) are used.

Container deposit schemes

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.

Litter traps

A Parks Victoria litter trap on the river catches floating rubbish on the Yarra River at Birrarung Marr in Melbourne, Australia.

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.

Monitoring sites of littering and dumping

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.

Legislation and fines

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 fine, community service, or both, as set out by state statutes and city ordinances. All 50 states have anti-litter laws.
  • 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 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 onto the street.

Anti-litter campaigns

The International Tidy Man

A number of organisations exist with the aim of raising awareness and run campaigns including clean up events. Clean Up the World is a worldwide campaign.

In the United States there are a number of organisations 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 organisations include Keep Australia Beautiful founded in 1963 that 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 U.K. government.

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