With National Wildlife Day just around the corner, here at Rubicon® we wanted to honor this day, as well as the work of our partner, the National Wildlife Federation, by taking a look at the effects of mismanaged trash on the animals and plants with which we share our planet.

Littering and its effects pose a significant threat to wildlife here on Earth. But how exactly does litter affect nature in the environment?

Keep reading to learn more about the dangers that animals and plants face every day as a result of our trash—and how we can mitigate these dangers going forward.

What is Litter?

Generally speaking, litter refers to trash and other waste products that are disposed of improperly in the environment.

Plastic is a major littering culprit. According to a 2017 study from Science Advances, only nine percent of the 8.3 million metric tons of plastic produced since the 1950s is properly recycled.

Research has shown that littering is often an individual and deliberate act. Although landfills can unintentionally litter when garbage and debris fall, everyday people often choose to litter, either because of a lack of quality facilities in their area or simply pure carelessness.

As harmless as it may seem to toss a piece of trash out here or there, litter and littering have severe consequences—especially for wildlife.

How Does Litter Affect Animals?

Litter can negatively affect animal life in a myriad of ways.

One of the most common effects of litter on animals is entanglement. Animals of all shapes and sizes can find themselves trapped and hurt by various waste products, especially plastic ones, leading to severe injuries or even death if they can’t escape.

Although entanglement can happen to any animal, it significantly impacts marine wildlife. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), entanglement causes the death of hundreds of thousands of marine mammals every year, including dolphins, seals, and whales.

Animals may also mistake trash as a new source of food. Sea turtles, for example, are often found trying to eat plastic bags because they resemble jellyfish, one of their natural prey.

Ingesting litter can cause direct harm to an animal’s internal organs, force starvation by filling its stomach and intestines with indigestible material, decrease its mobility, and poison it to the point of sickness or death. A United Nations (UN) report from 2016 found that marine life is significantly at risk of ingesting litter, with nearly 50 percent of cetacean and seabird species having done so already.

Litter even has the potential to change an animal’s habitat, behavior, and reproduction rates. White storks in Portugal have quit migrating to live and feed near landfills year-round. This has caused their population numbers to soar, even though they’re likely consuming plastic particles and other forms of waste with every bite.

How Does Litter Affect Plants?

Litter can negatively affect plant life, regardless of where it’s trying to grow.

The presence of litter on land can directly contribute to soil pollution. As a waste product decays, it infects the soil surrounding it with hazardous chemicals. These contaminants can decrease the presence of microorganisms in the soil and stunt or mutate plant growth across generations.

Take cigarette butts as an example. One study from 2019 found that the presence of cellulose acetate, the fiber that makes cigarette filters, in soil decreased the success of germination in studied plants by as much as 27 percent.

When litter finds its way into waterways and eventually bodies of water, it can also affect aquatic plant life. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), floating trash can block out sunlight and deplete oxygen levels in the ocean, all of which are necessary for underwater photosynthesis.

Sometimes litter gets incinerated to minimize the risk of soil and water pollution. However, burning trash still contributes to air pollution and the likelihood of acid rain thanks to the nitrogen oxides and other toxic compounds it releases into the air. Unsurprisingly, poor air quality and acidic deposition make it difficult for plants to photosynthesize successfully.

How Can You Help?

So, what can you do to stop littering in its tracks and help save the lives of our world’s flora and fauna? Rubicon’s mission is to end waste. Join us in our mission by doing what you can of the following:

Lessen Your Litter

Teach litter a lesson by doing what you can to help lessen it in your day-to-day life. Look for ways to prevent yourself from leaving waste behind by opting for more sustainable packaging and recycling the right way.

Clean Up Your Community

Studies have shown that the less litter there is in a specific location, the less likely people will want to litter. Find or create events to help pick up litter in your neighborhood to help keep it litter-free for longer.

Spread the Word

More people need to understand the devastating effects litter has on animal and plant life. This is one of the reasons why we partner with the National Wildlife Federation on Trick or Trash™, Rubicon’s annual Halloween recycling campaign, to bring long-term recycling awareness to the importance of recycling to kids across the country. Whether through a social media post or a casual conversation, you can help spread the word in your own social circle.

Katie Kinnear is Director of Engagement Strategy at Rubicon and was the inspiration behind creating the Trick or Trash campaign. To stay ahead of Rubicon’s announcements of new partnerships and collaborations around the world, be sure to follow us on LinkedIn, Facebook, and Twitter, or contact us today.