What is Litter?
Litter is any material that has been left where it is not meant to be. Frequently littered items include:
- cigarette butts
- drink containers
- apple cores
- take-away food packaging
- material falling from an unsecured load
Litter is usually thought of as small items, but it also includes abandoned vehicles, household rubbish dumped on the roadside or in the bush, and furniture such as mattresses left on the street by people moving house. It even includes fish offal left behind by recreational fishers after scaling and gutting fish.
Litter Matters - But Why?
Litter is a very visible sign of pollution. It is unsightly and can cause harm to people, wildlife and our waterways. It encourages pest animals as well as the spread of germs and disease. Litter is wasteful and costly to clean up. Litter also affects the way tourists view our State.
Litter - it Lasts and it Travels
Litter takes many forms and has a range of effects. Many of the materials we casually throw away don't break down - they last in the environment for a long time. People may think that paper decomposes easily, but a parking ticket, for example, can take up to a month to decompose, depending on where it is.
So, imagine the length of time it takes for a plastic soft drink bottle or a plastic industrial oil container to break down! Plastic litter can impact for hundreds of years. Plastic is also light weight, easily windblown and it floats in water, often travelling long distances via the stormwater system to impact on our beaches.
The Ocean Conservancy estimates that 59% of all marine litter is from land-based shoreline and recreational activities.
The following table shows the time it takes for some common litter items to decompose in the environment.
||Time to break down|
||1 million years|
|Monofilament fishing line
|Plastic beverage bottles
||80 - 200 years|
|Foam plastic cup
||10 - 20 years|
||1 - 5 years|
|Source: US National Park Service; Mote Marine Lab, Sarasota, Florida|
Litter and Stormwater Quality
Litter often clogs stormwater drains, affecting water quality and impacting on those plants and animals that live in and along the waterways and coast. Certain types of litter, such as food scraps and other organic items, can contribute to algal blooms that deplete oxygen levels in the water.
Litter can also degrade water quality if there are harmful chemicals associated with it. For example, cigarette butts contain many toxic chemicals that leach into the water.
Some litter can be dangerous. Broken glass, fishhooks and bits of metal can cause serious injuries to people and wildlife. Discarded lit cigarettes can cause bushfires.
Litter prevention, education, collection and enforcement costs the community millions of dollars every year. For example, Australian local and State Governments spend over $200 million a year just picking up litter.
Litter has many other costs that are significant but hard to quantify in dollar terms. Examples include the social and environmental costs of degraded environments, injured wildlife, and impacts on liveability such as reduced amenity of public space, and community safety.
There is also much concern about the significant impact of plastic litter on marine life.
Case Studies and Resources on the Impacts of Littering
Litter in Tasmania
Littering continues to be a problem in Tasmania. Results from the Keep Australia Beautiful National Litter Index 2017-2018 survey for Tasmania showed that the amount of litter on our streets and highways, along our beaches and in our shopping centres has increased over the years.
Keep Australia Beautiful, through the National Litter Index, highlight the "Dirty Dozen" littered items. Cigarette butts are the most commonly littered item, followed by paper. Plastic litter is the most voluminous material surveyed. Examples of plastic litter include take away food containers and utensils, soft drink beverage containers, plastic shopping bags and plastic bottle tops.
Keep Australia Beautiful conducts campaigns and provides information on how to prevent littering and reduce the impacts of the wastes we generate as part of our modern lifestyle.
Who Litters and How?
One of the best known pieces of litter research in Australia was undertaken in 1997 by Community Change, in a report Understanding Littering Behaviour in Australia for the (then) Beverage Industry Environment Council.
This research indicated that there are no significant gender, age or class distinctions in people's littering behaviour. Littering behaviours are influenced by a number of factors - the type of item being disposed of, whether people regard the item as litter, whether bins are available to dispose of the litter and whether we are alone or in a group or in a private or public place.
The bottom line is that people from all walks of life litter. Preventing and reducing litter is everyone's responsibility. As individuals we can choose to 'do the right thing' and dispose of our waste appropriately.
Changing Littering Behaviours
The complexity of littering behaviours requires that at the community level we need to work together to develop litter strategies that address a range of factors and in an integrated way.
The essential elements are education, enforcement and engineering (infrastructure). An education program alone or the issuing of fines by itself will not lead to sustainable long term changes. Likewise, the provision of infrastructure alone does not prevent litter - about 50 % of littering occurs within 8 metres of a bin.
When education (information, knowledge), enforcement (penalising offenders) and engineering (making it easy and convenient) are integrated, attitude and behaviour change are more likely to occur simultaneously.