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The Litter Problem: Out the Window and Out of Our Minds

Pollution is a part of our world; air pollution, trash pollution, water pollution, light pollution… There are different types of pollution for pretty much every activity that humans do. National Geographic defines pollution as: “the introduction of harmful materials into the environment”. How can it be that every single thing we do is harming the environment? Is there truly no hope? Or perhaps there is the possibility of rethinking the current system in place.

The sad truth about pollution is that it is often very much out of sight, out of mind. We are aware that there is a great garbage patch that exists, yet we are not confronted daily with its existence. How much thought do any of us give to an item when it becomes trash? The moment we decide an item is no longer needed and then becomes trash, our awareness of that item goes out the window. In some cases, the trash literally goes out the window in the form of littering.

The thoughts presented in this article regarding littering are based on the exposure to litter at the Rosewood Nature Study Area in Sparks, Nevada.

Trash found and collected at the Rosewood Nature Study Area, this is only part of it! (Photo Credit: Elizabeth Ott-Bales)

A Hot Spot for Littering?

“Over 51 billion pieces of litter appear on U.S. roadways each year… that’s 6,729 items per mile of roadway.” (Keep America Beautiful) The Rosewood Nature Study Area is a hot spot for litter due to it being a meeting point of two creeks and a main thoroughfare. Dry Creek which runs through the city of Reno, Steamboat Creek which originates from Washoe Lake, and Veterans Parkway, a six-lane roadway built up on an embankment that cuts straight through the middle of the Rosewood Nature Study Area property. The main points we find litter at in Rosewood come from upstream of the Dry Creek as well as vehicle drivers on Veterans Parkway.

You may ask yourself, what defines littering? Litter consists of any kind of trash thrown into an unsuitable location without consent. When it comes to littering, roadways are one of the most common places people decide to throw their trash out the car window. They have the mindset that since they are out of their own neighborhood they won’t have to see the damage they are causing, along with the belief that someone else, either a maintenance worker or friendly neighbor, will pick up the trash. “Motorists and pedestrians contribute a combined nearly 70% of litter over 4 inches [in size].” (Keep America Beautiful) The more litter in the area, the less guilty people feel when throwing their trash out the window.

Without proper education, people do not know the environmental repercussions of littering and will therefore continue to do so. Littering can not only cause physical harm to others, it can facilitate the spread of diseases. Trash, when contaminated with toxic chemicals and disease, can contaminate water systems and spread water-borne diseases. If unclean or untreated water is consumed the spread of water-borne diseases can negatively affect the health of both animals and humans.

Can you spot all of the small pieces of trash floating in the water? (Photo Credit: Sequoyah Pollard)

Each type of litter has its own health and environmental concerns depending on its characteristics when it is exposed to the elements. As we know, paper breaks down differently from plastics and styrofoam. The two largest pollutants at the Rosewood Nature Study Area are plastic and styrofoam. Let’s look more closely at their impacts.

Plastic litter found at the Rosewood Nature Study Area is diverse including bubble wrap, water/soda bottles, grocery bags, straws, bottle caps, food wrappers, and the occasional dog waste bag.

Plastics, more specifically plastic water bottles, are the single intact item that is most commonly found in the waterways at the Study Area. They are found along the shores and plugging up the dams. Contrary to popular belief, a majority of plastic is not recycled. Sometimes it cannot be recycled and other times it never even makes it to a recycling plant. If you want more shocking statistics regarding plastic bottles check out:

Plastic also continues to hurt birds and fish with there being an increasing number of microplastics in the system that are ingested and passed through the food chain. As many as, “10 percent of freshwater bird species are now known to be entangled in plastic litter.” (“LitterBirds - Plastic Pollution”)

Here are just some of the plastic bottles that have been found from June 2021- August 2021. (Photo Credit: Elizabeth Ott-Bales)

Another large polluter is styrofoam, also known as foamed polystyrene. Polystyrene is made from styrene, a colorless, flammable liquid, which has a sweet odor and is highly volatile. (“Styrene”)

There is evidence of increased risk for cancer with styrene exposure (same link above) which means that tiny amounts of styrene could leach into your hot coffee from a styrofoam cup. (“Styrofoam Facts - Why You May Want to Bring Your Own Cup.”) In addition to health concerns, styrofoam also does not biodegrade. This means that products will break down into smaller and smaller pieces but will continue to leach small amounts of syrene into the water that it finds itself in after it has been littered. Common confusion arises regarding the recyclability of styrofoam as products are often marked with a recyclable symbol with the number “6”, however, there are very few recycling centers across the country that accept styrofoam for recycling due to it not being clean enough. (“Styrofoam Bans: What You Need to Know.”) If styrofoam is placed in curbside recycling it has the potential to cause an entire load of recycling material to be rejected as styrofoam is considered an unacceptable material. (“Is Styrofoam ™ Recyclable?”) Many places in the United States have already placed bans on styrofoam which has significantly reduced litter in those locations.

Time to Reprogram our Minds

If you do a deep dive into the impacts of plastic and styrofoam production it becomes clear that they are not sustainable materials as they do not safely nor effectively break down. With the impacts of climate change ever increasing, the need for healthy wetland ecosystems, like the Rosewood Nature Study Area, is more important than ever. In return, it is also more important than ever that we reduce the opportunity to litter these toxic items. Without a reduction in litter and pollution, natural systems will soon be overwhelmed. So what do we do?

We, as a species, need to rethink and reprogram our minds to lessen pollution. What if our default was that trash wasn’t an option? What if we choose to have a world with significantly less waste and pollution? Take for example plastic and styrofoam litter, how do we stop it? Well, we could do a massive campaign and charge fines, but that already happens. So next step: ban the use of them, force companies to rethink their model and do not accept anything less than a cleaner future. This will be a battle, but one worth fighting.

The first step is on an individual level: say no to plastic bottles. Retrain yourself to a new normal where you do not acknowledge the existence of plastic bottles as an option. Start small and together we will grow and learn to expect a world without pollution. Live your life by the 5 R’s (Refuse, Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, Rot) and we might just cleanse our minds and our world of litter.

The 5 R's infographic (Credit: Unsustainable Magazine)

Works Cited:

  1. Keep America Beautiful. “Litter in America: Fact Sheet- Littering Overview.” Keep America Beautiful, 2019, Accessed 11 Aug. 2021.

  2. Keep America Beautiful. “Litter in America: Fact Sheet- Littering Overview.” Keep America Beautiful, 2019, Accessed 11 Aug. 2021.

  3. “LitterBirds - Plastic Pollution” Urban Bird Foundation l Birds. People. Communities., Accessed 10 Aug. 2021.

  4. “Styrene.” National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, 2018, Accessed 09 Aug. 2021

  5. “Styrofoam Facts - Why You May Want to Bring Your Own Cup.” SEJ, 10 Apr. 2019, Accessed 09 Aug. 2021.

  6. “Styrofoam Bans: What You Need to Know.” Green Paper Products - Blog, Accessed 10 Aug. 2021.

  7. “Is Styrofoam ™ Recyclable?” Communities for Recycling. 16 May 2019, Accessed 12 Aug. 2021.

  8. 5 R's Infographic courtesy of:

1 Comment

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Nov 28, 2023
Rated 5 out of 5 stars.

Amazing! I love littering, thanks for the info!



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