Litter is a major human-caused environmental problem. While the dumping of large or hazardous items is clearly harmful, smaller items have a greater collective impact.

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Toxic Litter Sludge

According to the journal Tobacco Control, 4.5 trillion cigarette butts are discarded annually, making this the single most littered item in the world as well as a serious fire risk. While dropping a cigarette on the ground may seem like an instantaneous way to discreetly dispose of a dirty, carcinogenic waste product, the trash persists even if out of one’s immediate view.

Because of their plastic components, cigarette butts left in the environment may take up to 400 years to degrade fully. Much of this litter, in the form of toxic sludge, eventually finds its way into local human-use waterways like streams and estuaries. Fish and birds often mistake cigarette butts and filters for food and swallow them, resulting in disease and sickness. Other very frequently littered items, like paper and plastic cups and bags, serve as open containers that fill with rainwater and provide ideal conditions for the breeding of mosquitos. Plastic rings and torn plastic bags can trap animals and slowly strangle them.

Even mylar balloons released into the air don’t “disappear”. Ultimately, these balloons must fall back to Earth. They often end up in the ocean and wash back to shore. Mylar provides a one-time use in balloons but takes a long time to degrade, as do the plastic strings that are typically attached to them. The problem is so significant that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has established debris monitoring stations and maintains maps that track the frequency of balloon litter along American shorelines. Many of the balloons are swept by winds and tides to remote areas where they are not cleaned up and continue to harm wildlife for an extended period of time.

The maintenance of a beautiful environment is not the sole responsibility of any single person, but it is the collective moral responsibility of all of us. A 1999 survey by the non-profit Keep America Beautiful revealed that while three quarters of Americans littered in the last five years, 99% of those same individuals stated that they enjoyed a clean habitat.

Cleaning up litter costs roughly ten times as much as disposing of trash properly in the first place. While measures such as the elimination of landfill disposal fees, the multiplication of regularly serviced trash receptacles, and the strengthening of legal penalties can all help to reduce littering, education and awareness about the scope of the problem is important as well. Now that you know the facts, please think twice before littering.