What impact does litter pollution have on the natural environment?

What impact does litter pollution have on the natural environment?

What is litter, and why is it a problem for our environmental, wildlife and communities? And what can we do to deal with the problem of litter.

Litter is waste that’s in the wrong place

Litter is rubbish or waste products that have either been dumped or end up in the wrong place.

If you’ve noticed litter in your local area, you might have seen these common items:

  • Food wrappers
  • Takeaway coffee cups
  • Plastic bottles
  • Aluminium cans
  • Glass bottles
  • Cigarette butts
  • and over the last few years, disposable masks.

Cigarette butts are the item that dropped as litter most often – an unbelievable 4.5 trillion cigarette filters are discarded worldwide every year.

Sometimes larger items such as bags of household rubbish, tires, or electrical appliances are left in the environment. This is called ‘fly tipping’ or ‘dumping’. It also causes environmental damage, and is a health hazard to humans and animals. It costs local councils thousands of dollars to deal with this problem.

Littering can be intentional or unintentional

Litter can come from different places, and can be left on purpose, or unintentionally, by mistake or accident.

Intentional littering is things like:

  • Throwing food wrappings out of car windows on the move (this is a common source of litter)
  • Dropping litter on the streets
  • Leaving rubbish behind after outdoor events like public events or having a picnic
  • Throwing cigarette butts away after smoking
  • Dumping rubbish in wild areas like woodlands.

Some reasons for purposely dropping litter include:

  • Inconvenience of disposing of litter correctly,
  • Feeling of entitlement and that ‘everyone else does it, so I will too’,
  • It has become a habit to litter,
  • Too expensive to pay fees to have rubbish collected, or to drop waste off at a Refuse Transfer Station (known as a Tip or Dump),
  • Lack of curbside rubbish or recycling collection,
  • Lack of enforcement around penalties for littering or dumping rubbish.

Unintentional littering can be from:

  • Rubbish blown by the wind, for example from out of recycling bins or unsecured rubbish out for council collection
  • Items falling out of trailers or trucks, and ending up in the environment.

Almost half of the litter on roads in the USA is estimated to be accidental or unintentional litter. It is usually from unsecured rubbish on trucks and recycling collection vehicles.

Takeaway food and drink litter dominates ocean plastic

Impact of litter on the environment

Litter can be harmful and dangerous to animals, people and the environment.

Effects on Animals

Litter can be a danger for wild animals, farm animals and pets. Animals can get trapped in rubbish, or injured by broken glass. They can be poisoned by eating litter such as cigarette butts, if they mistake them for food.

Discarded plastic and fishing nets are a problem for sea animals, with ghost nets trapping and killing fish, sea birds, and mammals.

Effects on People

As with animals, people can also be injured by discarded rubbish. This is particularly true of items like discarded needles, broken glass, or dumped chemicals.

Litter can ruin the natural beauty of an area. Have you ever been to the beach or for a walk in the bush, and seen pieces of rubbish spoiling the environment? Most of us have experienced this, and felt annoyed that rubbish spoils the beauty of nature.

Wind blown rubbish can cause car accidents, if it distracts a driver as it is blown around near them.

Cleaning up litter is a huge cost to the economy as well. The money used to clean up and dispose of rubbish properly could be spent on better things.

Effects on the environment

Some dumped rubbish, such as plastic or tires, will start to break down if it is left out in nature. It can leach hazardous materials into the ground, which can contaminate soil and water, and pollute the air with particles.

Litter is also a fire risk, which can destroy natural environments like woodlands and native forests. A lightning bolt can start a fire if it hits flammable rubbish like paper bags.

Community litter picking image

Solutions to the litter problem

Rubbish in the environment is a problem that can be dealt with by informing people about the dangers of littering, and encouraging everyone to dispose of rubbish carefully.

Ideally, it would be great to see less packaging on products, particularly plastic packaging. And for more people to choose to reduce waste – read more about How to live a lower waste lifestyle for practical ideas that you can try.

However, with rubbish still being dumped in the environment, we still need to address the litter problem.

There are a few ways to go about this:

Avoid litter in the first place:

Have recycling and rubbish bins available in convenient places

If recycling and rubbish bins are available in public places, people can use them instead of dumping their rubbish as litter. Some events like festivals have recycling and rubbish stations, with volunteers to help people put their waste into the right places for recycling or landfill.

However, people may still throw rubbish away, regardless of whether bins are available. This approach relies on people doing the right thing, which isn’t always the case.

Discouraging littering with fines

Some local authorities have laws in place to discourage people from littering. Fines can work to reduce littering, if the person littering is caught in the act, either in person or on CCTV, or reported by someone else.

This relies on catching or identifying people who are littering, which isn’t easy if people are dumping rubbish in remote places, or throwing food wrappers out of the car window when they are driving along.

Anti-litter Campaigns

There are many organizations worldwide that raise awareness and run anti-litter campaigns.

Tidy Towns competitions around the world are a popular way to encourage people to have pride in the state of their town or village.

Keep New Zealand Beautiful is a charitable organisation that has been educating and promoting environmental community work in Aotearoa New Zealand since 1967.

‘Keep America Beautiful’ actually came up with the word ‘litterbug’ in an ad campaign in the 1940s.

Deal with litter already in the environment:

Litter picking – community groups or individuals

Groups of people or individuals can get involved in picking up litter and disposing of it properly. Cleaning up the local environment is a way for people to get involved and make a difference.

The Earth Day organization has run The Great Global Cleanup since 1970. In the most recent campaign, clean ups were planned across 191 countries worldwide:

The Great Global Cleanup® is a worldwide campaign to remove billions of pieces of trash from neighborhoods, beaches, rivers, lakes, trails, and parks — reducing waste and plastic pollution, improving habitats, and preventing harm to wildlife and humans. This program aims to continue cleanups every day of the year for a brighter, greener, and cleaner planet.


In New Zealand, Clean Up Week ran from 17 to 23 September 2022. It had over 67,400 volunteers register to take part in 466 clean up events across Aotearoa New Zealand. Volunteers collected a total of 655 tonnes of waste.

“Litter isn’t just unsightly, it poses a huge threat to our eco-systems and by removing it we’re protecting our environment, our flora and fauna, and stopping it from entering waterways and causing more damage.”

Keep New Zealand Beautiful CEO Heather Saunderson

It’s a good idea to either wear gloves or use a stick to pick up rubbish if you are part of a clean up project. This minimises the risk of injury to your hands from any sharp pieces of litter, or infections from pathogens on rubbish.

Read this post from Carly at My Green Toddler about Sustainability activities for Kids: Picking up Litter for some tips about litter picking as a family activity.

Community litter picking photo


Some people are adding litter picking to their regular walking or running regime:

Plogging is a combination of jogging with picking up litter (merging the Swedish verbs plocka upp (pick up) and jogga (jog) gives the new Swedish verb plogga, from which the word plogging derives). It started as an organized activity in Sweden around 2016 and spread to other countries in 2018, following increased concern about plastic pollution. As a workout, it provides variation in body movements by adding bending, squatting and stretching to the main action of running, hiking, or walking. An estimated 2,000,000 people plog daily in 100 countries and some plogging events have attracted over 3,000,000 participants.

A solution for reducing litter pollution
Reduce litter – challenge yourself to pick up litter and dispose of it properly

A bit of both approaches – reducing rubbish dumping and encouraging picking it up:

Container deposit legislation

Schemes such as container deposit programmes can aim to both reduce litter and encourage people to pick up discharged containers. The schemes offer financial incentives for returning containers such as glass and plastic bottles, and aluminium cans, for a small refund.

In countries such as Germany and the Netherlands, container-deposit legislation has been introduced on cans and plastic bottles. Now in Germany, there are much fewer cans or plastic bottles dumped on roadsides. In the Netherlands, the amount of litter has dropped considerably, and 95% of the plastic bottles are now recycled.

In New Zealand, a Container Return Scheme is being considered by the Ministry for the Environment. At this point (October 2022) we are still waiting to hear if it will go ahead.

The Zero Waste Network has this to say about their support for the scheme:

New Zealand produces a mountain of beverage waste and litter every day, with more than 2.23 billion beverage containers purchased each year.  This equates to 6.1 million containers each day or 1.36 containers per person per day, not including beverages consumed by tourists. 

As a result, over 830,000 cubic metres of beverage containers are discarded into the litter stream, and landfills annually. Equivalent to 700 Boeing 747 airplanes filled with containers! 

Under a mandatory CRS, at least 85% of these containers would be recovered from the litter and waste streams and recycled, with the potential to create hundreds of new businesses, up to 2,400 new jobs and large cost savings for ratepayers and local authorities. 

Additionally a CRS would create significant C02 reductions and marked reductions in plastics entering our waterways and oceans. 

No other single waste stream could be managed so easily by such a proven method as a mandatory CRS where recycling rates overseas of 85 – 95% are common. 


I’d love to see this scheme in place. As well as reducing litter and increasing recycling, it can be an excellent way for charities and communities to raise funds for projects.

What can you do to reduce litter? Can you pick it up when you see it in your local environment?

Please share your stories or comments below.

Related articles:

How we reduced our rubbish in the last 12 months

What is a ‘Zero Waste’ lifestyle and why is it important?

How to make progress towards zero waste, not perfection

12 thoughts on “What impact does litter pollution have on the natural environment?”

  • I always think of waste as a human concept. Waste does not occur in the natural environment. There is so much to learn from nature and how to be truly eco-friendly. It is a great overview you are providing about the issues and the solutions for litter

    • Thank you Veronika, I agree that waste is a human concept, and the huge amount of waste we create is only really in the last couple of hundred years. But, I think that means we can change our mindset, and go back to some of the previous ways we did things, to design waste out of the processes again.

    • Exactly! I love some of the anti litter slogans from States in the USA – ‘Don’t mess with Texas’ is both encouraging and threatening!

  • I am always so shocked at what we just throw away. I am guilty of it for sure, but we try to reduce and reuse as much as possible. The thing that kills me is, why doesn’t the US have more environmental programs that ACTUALLY recycle? When we take our recyclables in? They get tossed in with the rest of the garbage to the landfill. It’s ridiculous!

    • It is actually so sad, you are right Leigh. I think it’s something like only 9% of plastic ever made has been recycled. What a waste of resources, to throw all that material in a hole in the ground.

    • Thank you Rachel, I appreciate that a lot. It can feel like we have little power over huge environmental issues, but I am a big fan of the ‘every small action adds up’ approach.

  • This is the easiest thing to do – just throw away your own garbage or don’t buy packaged things! The kids and I have found that a super simple service project is just to keep bags in the car and every time we stop at a park, we just plan to spend a few minutes picking up trash. It can be fun, which seems weird. The kids are super aware of trash, though, and would never think of just throwing it on the ground!

    • Hi Tessa, that is such a good idea to keep bags in the car especially for picking up litter. I will steal this idea! Thank you.

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