Case Study: Taking Charge of Litter

Litter: More than a Local Issue?

Jessie, disgusted by what he saw, slogged across the muddy practice field. He mumbled, "I never want to be stuck picking up trash again! Why aren't there trash cans out here?!" A ketchup-smeared hamburger wrapper leered up at Jessie, as if it were saying, "This isn't my idea of a picnic either. You are a poor excuse for a trash collector." The more litter he found, the more determined Jessie became. He decided it was time to make big changes in his life – he would never look at a discarded hamburger wrapper the same again. As he completed his thankless task of litter retriever, Jessie wondered if the problem was just a local issue or if people everywhere littered as much as the users of this park.

Jessie and his friends had been recruited to pick-up trash around the local park before the big invitational cross-country meet that would be held there the following weekend. The students knew that athletes at the meet really didn't want the park to look like it did, with litter strewn about the grounds, but there were no trash cans. They believed that if there were trash cans, the visitors would use them, and then the park would make the team proud to be holding the meet there! For Jessie, the immediate question was where to locate the new trash receptacles in time for the meet. However, a bigger question lingered in Jessie's mind: how would he educate people about the hazards of littering? Jessie decided that as soon as the invitational meet was over, he would do some research about litter and make a difference in his neighborhood!

Litter is Historical

Litter is has been with humans as long as we have existed. Early man simply discarded his (or her) waste products in the countryside with no concern to their eventual fate. The word litter can be used both as a noun and as a verb. Litter is defined as something that has been disposed of improperly or without consent. To litter means to throw something on the ground around you in an untidy manner, as opposed to properly disposing of the item a waste receptacle. Litter ranges from small to large, from cigarette butts and gum wrappers to abandoned automobiles and appliances. Studies in Australia and the United States have shown that littering is most common in younger individuals (under age 30) and often occurs within 25 feet of a trash receptacle. Studies have also shown that "litter begets litter"; in other words people tend to litter where they see other litter has accumulated.

It wasn't until humans converged together into cities that litter, and other forms of waste disposal, became a health and sanitation issue. Throughout modern history litter and other discarded waste products have contributed to many major health crises. This is due to the fact that litter can attract rodents and insects that carry disease. Litter is not only unhealthy for humans; it has serious negative impacts on the environment. Litter trashes beaches, waterways and roadsides. Litter can be hazardous to both humans and wildlife. Those who accidentally come in contact with litter or ingest it can become entangled, injured or poisoned.

Littering Worldwide

Globally, litter continues to be a health, safety, and environmental problem. An example of a global litter issue is the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is in international waters off the shores of the Northwest Pacific Islands. It is a large floating "island" of debris, mostly plastics, that has been swept into a vortex of the North Pacific Subtropical Convergence Zone. It is believed to be twice the size of Texas and may be as large as the United States. Although the garbage patch is in the Pacific Ocean, miles from any country, the origin of as much as 60% of the garbage is land-based. Because the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is in international waters, no one country has taken responsibility for cleaning it up. Fortunately, many organizations are working to raise awareness and solve the issue of litter in the ocean.

Become a Litterwise Citizen

Over the past 50 years, global, national, and local efforts have been made to understand the causes of littering and to reduce its negative impacts on the environment. In the United States, the Keep America Beautiful Campaign was started in New York City in 1953. Beginning in 1973, and continuing today, research is conducted to understand why people litter and what can be done to diminish the behavior. Since these early days many educational and civic resources have been developed and provided to citizens by this national campaign. Thankfully, as a result of this effort, littering in America is on the decline. To learn more about litter and littering, how it is researched, and what you can do to help, visit the Keep America Beautiful website.