How Does Litter Affect the Environment?

17th April 2024

By Graham Matthews

Walk down any city street and sadly it won’t be long before you spot a crisp packet blowing in the wind, a plastic bag stuck in a tree, or a crushed can on the pavement. The UK is literally littered with rubbish that’s unsightly. It also has a serious environmental and financial impact.

Local authorities in the UK spend around £700 million to clear up litter in public places every year. Most people use bins to get rid of their rubbish to keep it secure and ensure responsible disposal. Carelessness, laziness, and ignorance can all cause littering and lead to waste entering and harming the environment in many ways.

Litter adds to the waste in our waterways, contributes to pollution, and can harm wildlife and human health. Don’t be a litterbug – discover how litter affects the environment and what we can all do to prevent it and look after our planet properly.

litter bin in park surrounded by rubbish.

What is litter?

Litter is small bits of rubbish dropped on the ground in public places. This includes waste left lying on the street, footpaths, in parks, and on beaches. Littering is the action of leaving little bits of rubbish in public. Most kinds of litter are associated with smoking, eating, and drinking – anything larger could be considered fly-tipping.

Some of the most common types of litter are:

  • Plastic drink bottles
  • Metal drink cans
  • Cigarette butts
  • Crisp packets
  • Takeaway and fast food boxes
  • Plastic bags

Is littering illegal?

Littering is a criminal offence in England and Wales under Section 87(1) of the Environmental Protection Act 1990. It’s a type of low-level crime and most penalties are an on-the-spot fine with a Fixed Penalty Notice (FPN). Refusal or failure to pay the FPN could lead to court proceedings and a higher fine.

Fly-tipping is a more serious crime under section 33 of the Environmental Protection Act 1990. This is the illegal disposal of waste somewhere not licensed to accept it, such as leaving an old fridge in a public park. Potential penalties including a conviction in a magistrates’ court could lead to larger fines and jail time.

What is fly-tipping?

Why is littering bad 
for the environment?

Leaving litter lying around damages the local environment in many ways. These small bits of rubbish soon add up and have a significant impact on the wider world. The weather means litter can blow or wash away into other places and affect our water, ground, air, and wildlife in negative ways.

Littering is bad for the environment as it can cause:

  • Pollution – litter released into the environment will start to degrade where it lands. This can release hazardous, toxic, and chemical elements as well as microplastics into the environment as it breaks down, depending on the material. It can pollute nearby water, ground, and air as the litter’s disposal isn’t properly managed and controlled.
  • Groundwater contamination – bits of litter can end up in rivers, streams, canals, and oceans that affect wildlife and drinking water sources. As litter decomposes any toxic and hazardous elements may leach into the groundwater and affect the drinking sources of humans and animals.
  • Greenhouse gas emissions – organic waste such as food scraps decompose and release methane into the atmosphere (rather than being recycled, composted, or recovered where the emissions are controlled and used to create energy). This pollutes the air and contributes to global warming and climate change.
  • Health hazards – rubbish in public places can attract pests that spread disease, such as rodents and insects. There’s also the risk of injury from people tripping over litter or cutting themselves on broken glass or metal tins and drink cans.
  • Wasted energy – after bagging up litter in parks, roadsides, and other public places it’s then transported separately to waste management facilities. This requires extra energy compared to putting rubbish in appropriate bins in the first place, which adds to carbon emissions.
  • Wildlife harm – parks are natural habitats for all sorts of wildlife and litter can make its way into streams, woods, and other places inhabited by all sorts of animals. Small bits of rubbish pose a choking hazard and can entangle animals causing all sorts of problems. Eating litter may also lead to digestion issues and possibly poisoning.
litter in a field.

How to prevent littering 
within your business

Businesses are responsible for waste management on their premises, which includes ensuring all rubbish is stored, removed, and disposed of properly. Littering can be an issue for companies if customers or staff drop rubbish and the wind carries it into public spaces and nearby waterways. For events and businesses with outdoor or exposed areas, it’s more of a risk.

To prevent littering within your business you must have the right types, sizes, and number of bins in place for employees and customers to use. Put up clear signs directing people towards the bins and explaining what materials can go in each one. This should reduce the risk of littering and increase recycling.

A waste management plan and policy are vital to ensure smooth storage, collection, and disposal of your commercial waste. Conduct a waste audit to assess what sizes and number of bins you’ll need and how often they should be collected to avoid overflowing bins. Train staff in the importance of waste management and litter prevention – including the financial and environmental impact.

bag of plastic litter from the sea.

Bin your litter with Divert

At Divert we can provide free bins for your business to store waste securely on site and prevent littering by your staff and customers. There are no delivery, rental fees, or hidden charges for the bins – you just pay for collection. Select from a wide range of bins, bags, and containers to suit your needs.

This includes bins for glass waste, cardboard recycling, food waste, general waste, and more. We divert all waste away from landfill and recycle as much as possible to benefit the environment and reduce your waste management costs. Get a free quote for waste collection today – call 0333 444 0118 or contact us online.

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