What is litter?
Litter is material that is deposited in a way that creates disorder. Frequently littered items include:
- cigarette butts
- drink containers
- take-away food packaging
Litter on grass
Photo: Rethink Waste
Litter can also include balloons, food scraps, household rubbish, abandoned vehicles, construction or demolition equipment, garden clippings, furniture and material falling from an unsecured load.
People with good intentions leave items outside full charity bins, but this can often result in litter.
Why is litter so bad?
Litter is a 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. It can degrade water quality if there are harmful chemicals associated with it.
Litter takes many forms and has a range of effects. Many of the materials we casually or accidentally throw away don't break down - they last in the environment for a long time.
Seal with injury to neck
Photo: Nature Conservation Branch, DPIPWE
People have become increasingly concerned about litter in the ocean, particularly plastic. Animals and birds can be entangled in plastic, such as rope, fishing line and string attached to balloons. This can disrupt their feeding, restrict movement, increase vulnerability to predators, cause a restriction that results in infection or loss of limbs, decrease their hunting ability and/or cause the animals to drown.
In the marine environment, animals and birds can also ingest plastic and balloons, mistaking them for food. Plastic can block the intestinal tract, fill the stomach and also sharp objects can cause injuries. Plastic can enter the food web and even zooplankton have been observed (under a microscope) eating plastic. Toxins are known to adhere to plastic and there are fears that these toxins could be imported into animal tissue, which could eventually be consumed by humans. According to the World Economic Forum, by 2050, plastic in the ocean will outweigh fish.
The following table shows the time it takes for some common litter items to decompose in the environment.
|Paper bag||1 month|
|Apple core||1-2 months|
|Cigarette butt||Up to 12 years|
|Plastic bag||*Up to 20 years|
|Plastic bottle||*450 years|
|1-2 million years|
*Plastic products are believed to never fully break down, and remain in the environment
Keep Australia Beautiful
Sources of litter
Litter on the land can arise from people who neglect to find appropriate receptacles for their waste. If bins are not serviced regularly enough, litter can arise from these overflowing bins, or outside full charity bins. Windblown litter can arise from landfill sites and transfer stations. If people do not carefully tie down their rubbish on the way to the landfill, litter can result.
The most littered item is usually the cigarette butt: people do not think of these small items as litter, and many people do not dispose of them correctly.
Most (around 80%) of the litter in the ocean comes from land-based sources: from littering, dumping and poor waste management practices, from stormwater and from extreme natural events, such as floods. The remaining sources of ocean litter come from fishing vessels, offshore platforms and from cargo ships and other vessels.
The costs of litter
Litter prevention, education, collection and enforcement costs the community millions of dollars every year. For example, Victoria spends about $43.5 million cleaning up litter every year, which is about $200,000 each day.
Broken glass, fishhooks and bits of metal can cause injuries to people and wildlife. Discarded lit cigarettes can cause bushfires, often with a huge personal and financial toll.
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.
Research indicates that there are no significant gender, age or class distinctions in people's littering behaviour. Women and men are equally likely to litter. The people least likely to litter were those aged under 15. People aged 15-24 have slightly higher littering rates than other adults when they are in a group. Littering was most common around 4 pm.
Littering behaviours are influenced by a number of factors - the type of item being disposed of, whether people regard the item as litter, education status, whether bins are available to dispose of the litter and whether people are alone or in a group, or in a private or public place.