Learn about litter

It’s a shame, but litter is everywhere! You will find it in shopping centre car parks, country roadsides, playgrounds, the beach and most other places you can think of. But, what is litter? How does it get there and what can we do about it? Keep reading to find out more.

What is litter?

What is litter?

There are many definitions of litter and littering. Some say that certain items are litter (e.g. glass, paper, plastic), while others use technical/legal language to define littering (e.g. deposits rubbish without authorisation or a permit).

A very simple definition is that litter is any item left lying in an open or public space.

How does litter get there?

There are lots of ways that litter ends up in places. These can be direct (e.g. someone dropping rubbish) or indirect (e.g. the wind blowing the rubbish around).

Littering by people in the community (let’s call them ‘litterbugs’) is a big problem and studies have found eight common littering behaviours:

Flagrant flinger

  1. Undertakers
    People who bury their litter under sand, leaves etc.
  2. Foul shooters
    People who aim for, but miss, the bin and then leave the object on the ground.
  3. 90%ers
    People who put large items in the bin, but leave smaller, less obvious items behind.
  4. Clean sweepers
    People who sweep litter off tables and leave it on the ground.
  5. Flagrant flingers
    People who throw objects away without even trying to conceal their actions.
  6. Inchers
    People who check that they aren’t being observed, then slowly inch away from their litter.
  7. Wedgers
    People who push items into small places where they will not blow away (e.g. gaps in tables).
  8. Brimmers
    People who put items on the edges of bins, rather than littering or placing them in the bin.

(If you would like to see these in action, see the ‘Litterbug animations’ in the interactives section of the website.)

While you may think that some of these behaviours are worse than others, they all contribute to the litter problem.

But don’t despair! There are also these positive littering behaviours:

Trail blazing

  1. Compacting
    Stuffing materials into a full bin.
  2. Trail blazing
    Going out of your way to find a bin.
  3. Coaching
    Prompting people to do the right thing with the disposal of their item.
  4. The assist
    A pick-up if a foul shooter misses.
  5. Marshalling
    Coordinating a clean-up.
  6. Intervening
    Suggesting others pick up litter they have dropped.
  7. Chasing
    Running after litter that has blown away.
  8. Do-It-Yourself
    Bringing your own containers to take your litter home for appropriate disposal.
  9. Volunteering
    Cleaning up after others litter.

How many of these do you do or have you seen other people do?

Why is litter a bad thing?

Litter creates hazards which may impact on people, animals and the environment. A hazard is defined as something that has the potential to harm. An impact is something that has an effect on someone or something.

There are three types of hazards and impacts:

Environmental hazards and impacts

  1. Environmental (plants, animals, habitat, natural resources)
    This includes polluted waterways, litter being eaten by animals, toxins leaching out of items (e.g. plastics) and injuries to animals by items such as broken glass.
  2. Social (people, and places)
    This includes injuries to people caused by items such as broken glass, negative impacts on the way places look and stopping people from using facilities (e.g. swimming in polluted waterways).
  3. Economic (money-related)
    This includes the cost of clean-up or litter disposal and loss of income for tourist locations (if there is a lot of litter, people will not want to visit that place).
How far can litter travel?

Litter rarely stays where it is originally dropped. It can be moved by the wind, water or even animals carrying it (think about birds who carry litter to make their nests).

If litter reaches the ocean it can travel huge distances thanks to the ocean currents.

There are four major ocean currents near and around Australia:

  1. The Antarctic Circumpolar Current
  2. The Leeuwin Current
  3. The Indonesian Throughflow
  4. The East Australian Current

Four major ocean currents near and around Australia

These can move litter from one place to another. For example, a piece of litter that makes it into the ocean at a New South Wales beach could travel all the way down to Victoria (or even over to New Zealand) on the East Australian Current. This piece of rubbish may get caught in another global current and be taken thousands of kilometres from where it was dropped.

Eventually this piece of rubbish may end up in an ocean garbage patch. Ocean garbage patches form in areas where several currents meet and create a gyre (a sort of vortex) that traps the rubbish in that area. There are five gyres and each has its own garbage patch forming:

  • Indian Ocean Gyre
  • North Atlantic Gyre
  • North Pacific Gyre
  • South Atlantic Gyre
  • South Pacific Gyre

The rubbish in these gyres has come from a range of sources, including littered items from the land. As the items (which are mainly plastic) make their way to the coast and float through the ocean, they start to degrade (break down). The smaller items can cause the most problems, particularly for marine animals who may become trapped in nets or plastic bags or mistake the small pieces for food (which can cause them to choke).

Ocean garbage patches

Won’t the rubbish just disappear?

Not all rubbish will break down and disappear. Some items will eventually break down and may not cause harm to the environment, but other items (such as particular plastics) never break down and remain in the environment forever. This is why it is important to dispose of your rubbish correctly and recycle items whenever you can. The breakdown time is based on a number of factors, including whether the item is organic (e.g. food) or inorganic (e.g. plastic) and the conditions in which it is left to break down (e.g. water, sunlight).

Rubbish breakdown time

What can we do about litter?

What can we do about litter?

The best way to reduce the amount of litter in the environment is to dispose of your rubbish correctly. You may think that just one person can’t make a difference, but if everyone takes responsibility for their own rubbish, the litter problem can be dramatically reduced. You can also tell others about the importance of putting your rubbish in a bin and encourage them to do it.

Another way to reduce litter, is to reduce the amount of packaging we use. A great place to start is in your school lunchbox. How much packaging does your lunch have every day? Could you pack a ‘litter free lunch’? Try this for a week and see what difference it makes.

Litter may sound like a big problem that is too hard to fix, but if we all start small, in our own communities, we can make a huge difference.