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The International Tidy Man[1]

Litter is waste that people unlawfully dispose of outdoors. It can be packaging or other unwanted items. Litter can be vandalism, carelessness, or inadvertence. Litter is a form of visual pollution. It can harm health, safety, and welfare. It adversely affects wildlife and environmental quality.



Throughout history, humans have thrown unwanted refuse onto streets, countrysides and remote places, unpunished.[2] Prior to reforms within cities in the mid to late 1800s, sanitation was not a priority on governments' lists of things to do. Waste was disposed of by the roadside or in small local dumps. It was unsanitary for local inhabitants and the growing piles of waste led to the spread of disease. The only known pre-modern exception, however, was the Arab Empire, especially in Cordoba, al-Andalus, which had facilities for litter collection.[3]

In the 14th century, the rise of waste in Europe helped contribute to the bubonic plague.[citation needed] Black rats, carrying the fleas which were the vectors for the plague, fed off the food scraps.


In addition to intentional littering, almost half of litter on U.S. roadways is now a result of accidental or unintentional litter, debris that falls off of improperly secured trash and recycling collection vehicles and pickup trucks.[4] Heavy traffic and proximity to waste disposal sites are known to correlate with higher litter rates.[5][6]

According to a study by the Dutch organisation VROM, 80% of the people claim that "everybody leaves of a piece of paper, tin or something, on the street behind". Young people from 12 to 24 years cause more litter than the average (Dutch or Belgian) person. But older people too cause litter. For example, 18% of people who regularly cause litter were 50 years of age or older. Nevertheless, automobile drivers and recreationalists, smokers and the youth are specific target groups within many campaigns conducted to keep countries free of litter.[citation needed]


Litter deposited by the ocean on the Hawaiian Island of Niʻihau

Litter can harm the environment in a number of different ways. It is a breeding ground for disease-causing insects and rodents. Its "ugliness" damages the appearance of scenic environments. Open containers such as paper cups or beverage cans can hold rainwater, providing breeding locations for mosquitoes which have been known to cause diseases such as West Nile Virus and Malaria. Uncollected litter can attract more, flowing into streams, and storm water drainage systems, local bays and estuaries. About 18% of litter, usually traveling through storm water systems, ends up in local streams, rivers, and waterways. About 80% of marine debris comes from land-based sources.[7] Animals may get trapped or poisoned with litter in their habitats. Cigarette butts and filters are a threat to wildlife and have been found in the stomachs of fish, birds and whales, who have mistaken them for food.[8] Debris falling from vehicles is an increasing cause of automobile accidents.[9] Cleaning up litter in the U.S. costs hundreds of dollars per ton, about ten times more than the cost of trash disposal, for a cost totaling about $11 billion per year.[5][10]

It often takes a long time before litter from the environment disappears. List of how long litter affects the environment:[11]

  • Paper and paperboard: 6 months
  • Used Cigarettes: 2–5 years
  • Plastic (PET) Soda Bottles: 5–10 years
  • Plastic shopping bags: 10–30 years
  • Gum: 20–25 years
  • Tin Can: 80–100 years
  • Polystyrene Chip Wrapping: 90 years
  • Aluminum Can: 200–400 years
  • Sixpack Bottle Wrapping: 450 years
  • Golf Ball: 100–1000 years

Litter by region

Litter can be expensive to clean up, so the act of littering has been made a fineable offense by statute in many places.

Some jurisdictions offer small bounties for preventing and cleaning up litter (for example, requiring people to pay a deposit on bottles, which is only given when the bottles are returned).



A Parks Victoria litter trap on the Yarra river catches floating rubbish in Melbourne.

Litter in Australia is prevalent in many areas. An anti-litter movement began in 1969 in Victoria with the formation of Keep Australia Beautiful. Its major anti-littering campaigns "Do the right thing" and "Tidy Towns" became well known nationally. Today, the most vocal organisation is Clean Up Australia which holds a national clean up day. There is currently no Government of Australia legislation against litter. Legislation is generally considered the responsibility of either an States and territories of Australia (Environmental Protection Agency) or Local Government Areas. All states and territories now have legislation against littering which may include fines, which are enforceable by the police or other agents. The first state level anti-litter legislation in Australia was the Environment Protection Act (1970) introduced in Victoria. Some state environmental protection agencies (including Victoria and Queensland) do online litter reports.

The Netherlands

In the Netherlands, the County Board municipalities as well as a special division called Rijkswaterstaat play a role in cleaning up litter. The Dutch police and local supervisors (called buitengewoon opsporingsambtenaar, or BOA's) fine citizens for throwing away cans, bottles or wrappers onto the street. The fine is 90 euro, unless the defendant is between 12 and 16 years old (the penalty is then half the amount, or 45 euro).[12]

New Zealand

Litter in New Zealand is prevalent in many areas, such as streets, waterways, drainage ditches, forests, and beaches. The Litter Act was adopted in 1979; it established the Keep New Zealand Beautiful organisation.[13]


Litter in Singapore has very rare and unusual restrictions. Singapore is known for its strict laws against littering of any kind. In order to maintain their reputation as the cleanest city in the world, fines can range from S$1,000 for dropping a simple piece of trash to S$20,000 for the authorized consumption of illegal drugs. The Corrective Work Order requires repeat offenders to spend a few hours cleaning a public place wearing bright jackets, and in some cases, the local media are invited to cover the public spectacle.

United Kingdom

In the United Kingdom there is a maximum fine of £2,500 for persistent littering. The person who is found to have been littering is punishale of up to a £75 fine at the magistrates court.[14]

United States

Materials dumped downhill from an unpaved road on state game lands in Gordon, Pennsylvania.

Litter in the United States is an environmental issue, and littering is often an offense punishable with a fine as set out by statutes in many places. Litter laws, enforcement efforts, and court prosecutions are used to help curtail littering.

The American Public Works Association standardized the term litter in the mid-20th century, to be later known as a form of solid waste—"material which, if thrown or deposited, tends to create a danger to public health, safety and welfare." Litter is categorized into three specific components: hazardous, reusable-recyclable and non-hazardous, non-from trash-hauling vehicles, unsecured loads, or construction sites.[15]

International waters

In international waters, great amounts of litter have been found floating around. According to UNEP, 6.4 million tons of litter wind up in the oceans per year [16] of which a large part are drawn into international waters because of sea currents. An example of this is the Plastic Vortex. Litter from all over the world flows into this one central area because of the sea currents.[17]

In the Pacific Ocean and near the shores of the Pacific Islands, two piles of waste drive around, which contain both around 100 million tons of litter.[18] Most of the litter is situated in the North Pacific Subtropical Convergence Zone and is referred to as the "Plastic Vortex". The litter consists primarily of plastic, according to scientists, from lego blocks and footballs to broken kayaks. Scientists are already fully aware of the existence of the floating litter, which was discovered accidentally in 1997, but since then has increased heavily in size. Because the litter is located in international waters, no one feels himself called to clean the waste. A research team called "Project Kaisei" is nevertheless organised to research the composition and size of the garbage patch. Upon the results, the team will undertake projects to clean up the patch by converting it to diesel oil.[19]

See also


  1. ^ Public Information Films : 1964 to 1979 : Film index : Keep Britain Tidy
  2. ^ DO MESS WITH IT!: A Sociopolitical Study of Littering and the Role of Southern and Nearby States
  3. ^ S. P. Scott (1904), History of the Moorish Empire in Europe, 3 vols, J. B. Lippincott Company, Philadelphia and London.
    F. B. Artz (1980), The Mind of the Middle Ages, Third edition revised, University of Chicago Press, pp 148-50.
    (cf. References, 1001 Inventions)
  4. ^
  5. ^ a b
  6. ^
  7. ^
  8. ^ "DO MESS" DO MESS WITH IT!: A Sociopolitical Study of Littering and the Role of Southern and Nearby States!
  9. ^
  10. ^
  11. ^ Brody, Jeremy. "Teaching Leave No Trace." Editorial. Bureau of Land Management Environmental Education. Jeremy Brody, 10 Jan. 1998. Web. 14 Oct. 2009. <>. <>.
  12. ^ "Working together for a cleaner Netherlands - homepage Municipalities and area managers". 
  13. ^ Keep NZ Beautiful Society Incorporated. "Who We Are." Editorial. Keep New Zealand Beautiful. Keep NZ Beautiful Society Incorporated, 2009. Web. 16 Oct. 2009. <>.
  14. ^ A site with much information on litter laws in the UK
  15. ^ Litter. It Costs You
  16. ^ UNEP Marine litter
  17. ^ Litter in the Pacific Ocean
  18. ^ Amount of litter in Plastic Vortex
  19. ^ Project Kaisei


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