The increasing amount of waste being produced around the world is a serious problem and a major threat to the environment. Animals are losing their homes to make room for landfills, and disease-ridden vermin like rats are moving in. Trash incinerators emit carbon dioxide, adding to the already critical buildup of greenhouse gases and exacerbating global warming. We’re polluting water sources and wild environments with our careless litter, making once natural habitats hostile for our precious wildlife. This is only part of the problem. Basically, it comes down to this: we’re producing more garbage than the Earth can handle, and we’re running out of places to put it.
Garbage and man-made waste isn’t new. Our nomadic ancestors produced waste like bones, animal skins, and other organic materials. However, what waste they created was biodegradable, so it broke down and returned to the earth with no harm done.
Landfills aren’t a new concept, either. The first municipal landfill was in ancient Greece. Still, little harm was done to the environment. The real waste problems began during the Industrial Revolution. New technologies allowed us to manufacture more artificial and non-biodegradable goods, and in much larger quantities. This changed the type and amount of waste we produced, and not for the better. Since then, the problem has only increased as we develop new technologies and mass-produce and mass-consume goods.
New products and technologies contain more man-made components, like synthetic fabrics, other plastics, and metals. These can take thousands of years to break down, unlike the organic waste of our ancestors, which took months or at most a couple years. To add to this, we’re producing these slow-decomposing materials at a much faster rate than the environment can handle. Large quantities of these materials just lengthen the decomposing process.
Another issue is electronic waste (or e-waste), which includes computers, TVs, cell phones – all items that can be hazardous to the environment if not properly disposed of. Despite restrictions on e-waste in landfills, some still finds its way to the city dump, which can add toxic chemicals to the earth and groundwater.
Our waste production is out of control. The average American produces up to 4.6 pounds of garbage per day. Sixty-five percent of our municipal waste is collected from households, and the other 35 percent comes from schools, hospitals, businesses, and other public facilities. About 80 percent of the garbage we dispose of can be recycled – but isn’t. We are overproducing, and our environment can’t handle it.
In the U.S. alone, we produced 243 million tons of trash in 2009. Americans generate 30 billion foam cups, 220 million tires, and 1.8 billion disposable diapers each year. Regardless of the fact that we make up less than 5 percent of the world population, we managed to produce a quarter of the world’s waste in 2005 – the greatest contributor to this epidemic. We’re not alone, though. The United Kingdom produces 300 million tons of garbage per year. Naples, Italy, was forced to relocate its trash to Hamburg, Germany, because it was running out of space.
If we continue with our careless lifestyle, we’re doomed to pay the price. When rainwater falls on landfills, it collects chemicals and other hazardous materials that will end up polluting lakes, streams, and groundwater sources. Carbon dioxide produced when transporting the trash, whether to the city dump or across the globe, is released into the atmosphere and increases global warming. Shipping trash to other countries not only worsens the atmosphere, it increases the risk of dangerous spills and accidents that could be hazardous to the ocean and its inhabitants. Landfills and old incinerators can release cancer-causing dioxins that harm those working or living near these areas.
Landfills also provide a home to disease-ridden vermin like rats. Decomposing materials release gases like methane, and plastics burned in incinerators give off toxins. These greenhouse gases only increase the thick layer of heat blanketing the earth.
There have been some efforts to address the trash crisis. The Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) regulates household, industrial, and manufactured solid and hazardous wastes. On Household Hazardous Waste (HHW) pickup days, household items like cleaners and old batteries are collected so they can be properly disposed of. Some countries in the European Union, for example, the Netherlands, have adopted the idea of “pay as you throw,” which has increased recycling by 45 percent. These programs charge residents for waste collection based on how much they throw away. Programs like this have been adopted in 26 percent of U.S. communities as well. If you’re going to pollute more, you should pay more.
We don’t have to live like this forever, though. There are a variety of ways we can reduce the amount of waste we create. We can cut the garbage that ends up in landfills by recycling more, reusing what can be reused, and properly disposing of hazardous waste and e-waste. Instead of trashing food scraps, start a composting pile in your yard or at school, and use the nutrient-rich soil to plant a garden. Use eco-friendly products, like reusable water bottles, rechargeable batteries, and reusable shopping bags. Instead of throwing away or recycling an old glass jar, clean it and use it to store something. These little acts can add up to a big difference.
Waste pollution is a huge problem in our world, and if we don’t act soon, there may not be a tomorrow. Do what you can, encourage those around you, and together we’ll work toward a cleaner world.
This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.
What is Littering?
Litter is any kind of trash thrown in small amounts, especially in places where it doesn’t belong. With time, it heaps up. The practice is unlawful because it costs municipalities millions of dollars annually in cleanup costs. It also portrays a bad picture of an area. The most frequent littered stuff include fast food packaging, cigarette butts, used drink bottles, chewing gum wrappers, broken electrical equipment parts, toys, broken glass, food scraps or green wastes.
Even practices such as leaving items overflowing beside a dust bin, deliberate throwing of items from vehicles, and abandoning items or wrappers by the roadside qualifies as littering. Littering is a dangerous activity and should not be taken lightly because it impacts the environment in multiple ways. In order to get a better understanding of littering, here is a list of its causes, problems and possible solutions.
Causes of Littering
1. Presence of litter in an area
Research has proven a correlation between the presence of litter in a given area and the intentional throwing of litter at that particular spot. The research points out that when someone sees litter already accumulated somewhere, it gives the impression it’s the right place to discard items and in most cases, it’s either accidental or intentional.
2. Construction projects
Some percentage of litter also comes from construction projects. The worker’s lunchtime waste together with uncontrolled generation of building waste is the culprit of litter produced from construction projects. Pieces of wood, metals, plastics, concrete debris, cardboard, and paper are some of the waste materials generated.
3. Laziness and carelessness
Laziness and carelessness has bred a culture of habitual littering. Typically, people have become too lazy and unwilling to throw away trash appropriately. It is common to see people discard trash out of their kitchen windows or balconies probably because they are too lazy to put it in the rightful places. Carelessness has also made people just throw rubbish anywhere without even thinking about it.
4. The belief that there is no consequence for littering
Since people perceive there is no consequence for their action when they throw items anyhow and anywhere, it has created the “I don’t care attitude“. The act of pedestrians getting rid of chewing gum wrappers and other wastes on the roadways and streets or motorists throwing garbage from their cars clearly reveals this kind of attitude. The majority of people believe there are others who will pick or clean it up.
5. Lack of trash receptacles
Many passengers, pedestrians and people living in urban areas have blamed rampant littering on the lack of public trash cans. Some places have them but they are not enough and some of the existing ones are sometimes poorly managed which leads to overload of the containers. Animal scavengers and blowing wind can dislodge the items and scatter them around.
6. Improper environmental education
Many people do not know that their various acts of littering negatively impact the environment. As a result, people continue to throw litter anywhere without thinking of their environmental consequences. Smokers, for example, are unaware of how the aimless throwing of cigarette butt affects the environment. The case is similar for passengers, pedestrians and people who aimlessly throw wrappers or other used items in remote or public areas.
Problems of Littering
1. Can cause physical harm or injury to people
Litter can contain objects that can harm or cause physical injury to people namely needles, blades or broken glass. Throwing cigarette butts in the forest can also spark fires and destroy nearby properties and homes or even kill those who are trapped in the fire.
2. It can facilitate the spread of disease
Littering can encourage the spread of pest species and diseases. The trash can provide breeding ground for diseases and pass it between animals that eat it. If the trash collects water it may also harbor mosquitoes that are known to spread the deadly malaria disease in tropic regions. Toxic chemicals and disease causing microorganisms in the trash may also contaminate water systems and spread water-borne diseases which can negatively affect the health of both animals and humans if unclean or untreated water is consumed.
3. Pollutes the environment
Litter adversely affects the environment. Be it littering along the road, on the streets or by the litter bins, toxic materials or chemicals in the litter can be blown or washed into rivers, forest lands, oceans, lakes and creeks and eventually pollutes the waterways, land, forest areas, soils or aquatic environments.
Cigarette butts, for instance, contain toxic substances like arsenic which can contaminate soil and water. The great pacific garbage patch is another example, which is connected to marine plastic pollution. Litter can also reduce air quality due to the smell and toxic/chemical vapor emanating from the trash.
4. High clean-up costs
Millions of dollars is spent by municipalities annually in clean-up efforts to reduce littering. This makes littering a huge problem because money that would otherwise be used in progressive development is partly directed to waste management programs. Litter can also block storm water drainage systems and cause urban flooding which requires money for intervention and restoration.
5. It affects and can kill wildlife
Plastic litter has often been mistaken for food by both land and marine wildlife such as the herbivores, sea birds, turtles, and fish. When consumed by the animals, they reduce the stomach capacity since they can’t be digested. In the long-term it affects the animals’ eating habit, eventually killing the animal.
Several marine wildlife including birds, whales, dolphins and turtles have been found dead with plastics and cigarettes in their stomachs. Some of the materials may also be poisonous or contain sharp objects thereby damaging the animal’s vital organs or injuring them.
6. Affects aesthetic value and local tourism
Littered places just looks gross and depreciates the aesthetic value of the surrounding environments. Similarly, it affects local tourism as it makes city areas and roadside look disgusting. The public and tourists also tend to avoid areas that are littered on the basis of how such areas appear uncared for and filthy.
Solutions of Littering
1. Litter laws
Putting in place strict litter laws ensures no litter is discarded, thrown or dropped onto private and public places. Such laws work towards prohibiting illegal dumping and littering. The law must also clearly stipulate that dumping is a serious offence, punishable by serving a jail term and fines. Several local authorities globally have considerably addressed the littering problem by instituting legislations punishing perpetrators with fines, imprisonment, and community service.
2. Anti-litter campaigns
Community programs and groups should be created with the sole aim of running anti-litter campaigns to raise awareness. “Keep the environment tidy” programs and community clean up events can be a lot of fun and are sufficiently valuable in spreading the message. The campaigns can also be incorporated in bulletin boards, social media platforms, and newsletters to spread the message widely.
Campaigns speak a lot and provide relevant knowledge about the environmental costs of littering, eventually addressing some of the problems. In supporting this initiative, more than half of smokers say that if they are aware of how their behavior impacts the environment, they would strive to correct it.
3. Stop Littering Signs
Putting up signs is a very creative way of putting a stop to littering. The signs should be placed in high littered areas and those that are prone to littering such as the streets near public transport stations. Routes used on daily basis by pedestrians and commuters also deserve “stop littering signs” to constantly remind people that littering is a bad thing and should thus be avoided.
4. Putting up litter bins
Proper measures must be taken by the relevant local authorities to ensure more garbage bins are installed in various areas for effective garbage disposal. Putting up enough garbage bins in town centers, walking routes, public areas, and near bus stops as well as fast-food restaurants offer convenience in the disposal and collection of litter. It also eases the recycling and reuse initiatives as the local authorities and garbage collectors are given easy time in sorting the waste. To avoid additional problems due to overfilling, the bins must be emptied regularly.
Image credit: RitaE , RitaE
Rinkesh is passionate about clean and green energy. He is running this site since 2009 and writes on various environmental and renewable energy related topics. He lives a green lifestyle and is often looking for ways to improve the environment around him.
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