What is litter?
Litter is rubbish that has been left in the wrong place. It falls into two main categories:
1. Marine or Ocean Litter – in the sea and washed up on beaches
2. Litter on land
Find out more about litter on land and in the sea in our Litter Pack - download it here.
Why is litter a problem?
Litter is a problem because:
1. It looks nasty.
We all know how horrible it is to look at litter in our hedges or roadside. It is even worse at sea where it can build up into huge islands of waste.
2. It is dangerous to wildlife.
Animals eat it thinking it is food, or get caught up in it and die (small animals can crawl into plastic bottles and get trapped, birds and seals can get trapped in plastic nets, etc).
3. It has not been recycled, reused or disposed of.
Litter is waste that has fallen out of our normal disposal systems. Perhaps someone has dropped it or perhaps it has blown out of bins. Whatever the reason litter needs to be collected and disposed of correctly.
4. It causes pollution.
Litter can contain toxic substances which could escape into the environment. It is important to dispose of our waste properly.
5. It can harm human health.
Chemicals released into the environment from litter can get into our water and poison us. Microplastics (tiny pieces of plastic) have been found in humans - we don't know the long term effects of these substances.
6. It lasts a long time.
Plastic litter is a particular problem because it takes a long time to decompose so it remains in the environment for a long time. It is thought a plastic bottle will take between 70 and 450 years to break down into tiny pieces called microplastics. Left as litter or in the sea these may never disappear, but may be deposited in the environment or on the seabed.
WHY – plastic is made from oil, so is man-made. This means bacteria can’t eat it. Though a few clever scientists are breeding some bacteria that can eat it, but only in a lab – it will take years to breed enough to digest all the plastic in the sea – even then it may be more of a problem to us if it eats all the plastic we use everyday.
7. It gets caught in nets of fishermen, meaning they don’t catch as many fish.
Imagine spending hours out to sea fishing and coming up with nothing but plastic waste. No fish and chips for tea tonight!
Where does litter come from?
Most litter in Britain is dropped from cars. Fast food packaging is a particular problem as it is dropped from cars in laybys after people have eaten their lunch or snack. Litter dropped on roads or verges can be washed into rivers and then out to sea, adding to the marine plastic problem. Other forms of plastic pollution such as biobeads and nurdles can escape from plastic production factories, water filtration units, or be lost when transported between different sites. Read more about biobeads here and nurdles here.
Where does ocean litter come from?
Every year at least 8 million tonnes of plastic enters our ocean - that's the equivalent of two bin lorries full every minute! Most litter in the seas (80%) comes downstream from rivers where it is washed into the sea. A lot of litter (over 50%) comes from just five countries in in South and East Asia (China, India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines).
Tons of litter ends up on beaches around the Pacific and Indian Oceans.
The ocean currents (or gyres) move the litter around the seas until it ends up as massive “plastic islands” taking up vast areas of the sea. No one really knows how big these islands are because the plastic is difficult to see from satellites, and some may just be a soup of tiny pieces of plastics.
What can we do to help?
Top Ten Tips
You don't need to buy a new plastic bottle every time you need water. You can carry a flask or refillable water bottle - there are many on the market. Many schools already encourage children to bring in water bottles to school every day. If your school does this already then you are a Refill School!
Why not sign up your school to Refill Schools (for more information see our Refill Schools page) or talk to your parents about adding their business of workplace to the list of places in Devon where you can refill your reusable water bottle.
Do you really need a plastic straw in your drink?
Straws are too small to be processed by most plastic processors so often fall through the system, ending up in water courses and then out to sea. Use steel or paper straws, or sip your drink instead!
Are you using and throwing away a cup every time you buy a hot drink? There are many brilliant reusable coffee cups out there, often made from recycled materials. If you have a teacher or parent who always has a cardboard coffee cup in their hand then why not give one to them as a gift!
Refuse to buy fruit or vegetables if they are wrapped in plastic film. Paper bags would work just as well. Plastic film cannot be recycled in most of Devon, so ends up in our black bags, which are mainly sent to an Energy from Waste plant and burnt for energy, or end up in landfill.
Buy bigger bottles to save plastic waste. This is often better value too! Or go one step further and buy solid deodorants, shower gels, shampoos and conditioners or share a five litre container out among friends.
Do you really need to use cutlery that gets thrown away after one use? Can you use metal knives and forks that can be washed, or carry a spork with you?
Plastic milk bottles are recycled in all Districts in Devon, however if you want to reduce your plastic waste further then why not check to see if there is a milk delivery in glass bottles in your local area. One study reckoned that bottles could be reused 40-50 times and then are recycled into more milk bottles at the end of their lives, creating a lovely example of a circular economy.
Microbeads are tiny bits of plastic present in many toothpastes, creams and lotions. Although the Government has announced a ban on their use in the future they are still in products we use everyday. Check your brands and look at the list here of products containing plastic microbeads.
It is now becoming normal to use cloth, jute or polyester bags while out shopping, due to the plastic bag tax. Don't forget to have a spare bag with you is case you buy something you weren't expecting.
Your pupils may be inspired to take practical action about litter and plastic pollution in our seas.We have created a useful pack for schools, full of useful advice about organising your own litter pick or beach clean, from sample risk assessments to instructions on how to deal with your waste. Download our litter pack here.