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Brace for Impact: The Clear Connection Between Litter, Our Environment, and Climate Change

Originally posted on on Oct 6, 2022

Part 1: On Terra Firma

“Environmental damage such as graffiti, fly-posting and general littering is a menace that is becoming all too prevalent, not just in inner cities but in many communities – urban and rural.” ~ Margaret Beckett, former member of the British Parliament

It should come as no surprise that litter is a serious problem. Our use-once then throw away convenience lifestyle has created a pollution crisis that the world has never seen before. It’s not just an issue in far-off lands where we see news footage of beaches a foot thick with trash the ocean has spat back out. It’s an issue right here in the United States. Almost 23.7 billion pieces of litter line our roadways. To put that into perspective, that’s over six thousand pieces of trash per mile of road.

Often the complaint is that litter makes an area look, well, trashy. But it goes deeper than that. In fact, it is estimated that neighborhoods with litter have homes that are valued 7% less than those in clean neighborhoods. It is literally affecting our wallets, yet we often walk past it and don’t do anything about it.

But it’s more than just about money, litter on land is also affecting the very soil we stand on, garden on, and rely on. As litter breaks down, due to wind, rain, and sunlight, it expels chemicals like BPA (from plastics) and arsenic (from cigarette butts) into the soil. This can cause a change in the pH of the soil itself which then affects plant growth and nutrients. In the end, these toxic chemicals make their way up the food chain and right into our bodies.

Then there’s the simple fact that litter physically covers natural areas which kill off the plant life underneath. By reducing or blocking the light that plants need for photosynthesis, discarded items easily kill native plants that are so vital to local ecosystems. If the reduced light doesn’t kill them, the seeping chemicals from the trash breaking down certainly will.

Let us not forget that litter can also become a fire hazard. The most common piece of litter to end up in flames is the cigarette butt. 85% of wildfires in the U.S. are caused by humans, and one way is through thoughtlessly discarded cigarettes. Eroding batteries is another fire hazard that is often overlooked. Batteries can easily become unstable, causing a fire, especially if other littered items with leaking chemicals are involved.

On a larger scale, litter on land is also a driver of climate change. We often hear that emissions from cars and energy production are the main drivers, and they very much are. However, litter is also causing our world’s climate to shift.

There are several ways litter contributes to climate change. One of these is by materials simply being produced. That single-use plastic bag or that plastic-lined disposable coffee cup was produced with fossil fuels and impacts the climate even before it ends up as litter. As of 2019, between 4% and 8% of annual global oil consumption was associated with the production of plastic. The effects don’t stop there. The breaking down of these products in nature releases greenhouse gases which make things like plastic a double dose of climate change.

But here’s the good news! There are things YOU can do to make a difference.

1. Reduce what you consume, reuse what you can, recycle what is allowed, and secure your bins to avoid fly-away trash.

2. Make neighborhood cleanups a regular part of your life – and make it fun while you’re at it! Official Trash Pirates has a free Litter Bingo printable for children and adults alike to make cleaning up your community a fun experience. You can find this Litter Bingo resource on our site’s Printables Page.

3. Push for policy changes by writing your elected officials, both locally and nationally. You can find tips and an example letter in our article, “How To: Write A Letter To Your Elected Officials.”

4. Avoid plastics, especially single-use plastics whenever you can. One way to see where you’re creating the most trash is by auditing your family’s trash.

5. Share this article with friends and family and tell them you’re going to reduce your consumption of single-use items and encourage them to do the same.


Author Bio

Jenna is the founder of Official Trash Pirates, an organization that focuses on teaching

children and their families about the effects of litter and climate change on our world.

She hopes to get people of all ages involved in solving the litter crisis and empowering

young people to make a difference in their community. Beyond her work with Trash

Pirates, she is the mother of an eight-year-old boy and wife of an active-duty Air Force

service member.

Learn more about Official Trash Pirates at or on their various

social media platforms: Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, TikTok


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