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Unraveling the Ecological Impact of Litter

Turtle trapped in plastic litter
Plastic litter on beaches
Penguin trapped in plastic litter

Litter, particularly plastic litter, poses an alarming threat to our environment and wildlife. As our dependence on plastic continues to grow, so does the volume of discarded waste, wreaking havoc on ecosystems and endangering the lives of countless animals.  The staggering amount of plastic litter entering the environment each year is a cause for grave concern. According to the World Economic Forum, it is estimated that over 8 million metric tons of plastic find their way into our oceans annually. These plastics persist in the environment, with some estimates suggesting that it takes hundreds to thousands of years for certain plastics to break down.

Aside from physically clogging waterways and being unsightly, plastic pollution is having devastating effects on wildlife.  One of the most dire consequences of plastic pollution is the ingestion of plastic by wildlife. Marine animals are largely are at risk as they mistake plastic debris for food. A study published in the Journal of Science estimates that more than 90% of seabirds have ingested plastic. This ingestion leads to malnutrition, internal injuries, and a range of health issues. The plastic particles may also leach toxins, leading to poisoning effects that can cascade through the food chain.

Plastic litter infograph
Plastic litter infograph

Litter, especially food-related items, attracts wildlife to roadsides, putting them at risk of collisions with vehicles. The Wildlife Society Bulletin reports that tens of thousands of wildlife-vehicle collisions occur annually in the United States alone, with litter acting as a dangerous lure for animals.  Wildlife also often get entangled in discarded items like plastic bags, six-pack rings, and abandoned fishing gear. A study in the journal Marine Pollution Bulletin suggests that millions of marine animals, including seals, sea lions, dolphins and whales, suffer from entanglement each year, leading to injuries, amputations, and, in some cases, death.  Other studies estimate that over 800 marine species are affected by plastic entanglement, resulting in the death of an estimated 100,000 marine mammals and 

Litter statistics

turtles annually.  All in all, over one million animals are expected to die each year as a result of consuming or getting trapped by litter, around the globe.  This is a pretty stunning statistic when it comes to the effects of our trash!

An insidious threat lurks in the form of microplastics—tiny particles resulting from the breakdown of larger plastic items. Microplastics pervade the environment, from the depths of the oceans to the highest mountain peaks and have even been found in rain drops. Studies estimate that there are trillions of microplastic particles in our oceans alone, posing a threat to marine life at the base of the food chain and, ultimately, impacting human health through the consumption of contaminated seafood.

As plastics degrade over time, they release a cocktail of toxic chemicals into the environment. Additives used in the manufacturing process, such as phthalates and bisphenol A (BPA), can leach into the surroundings, posing risks to both wildlife and humans. These chemicals are known endocrine disruptors, interfering with hormonal systems in animals and humans alike. The consequences range from reproductive issues and developmental abnormalities in wildlife to potential health risks for humans, including cancers, reproductive disorders, and neurological effects.

The nature of microplastics and the associated toxins underscores the interconnectedness of environmental and human health. Mitigating this multifaceted challenge requires a holistic approach that addresses not only the visible litter but also the microscopic threats that permeate our ecosystems. By adopting sustainable practices, supporting research on plastic alternatives, and advocating for responsible waste management, we can collectively curb the devastating impact of plastic pollution on both wildlife and ourselves.

The pervasive issue of plastic litter demands urgent attention and concerted efforts to mitigate its impact on wildlife. As guardians of the environment, it is our responsibility to reduce, reuse, and recycle - advocating for sustainable practices to minimize plastic waste. By understanding the profound effects of litter on wildlife and acknowledging the current statistics, we can collectively work towards a future where our actions preserve the delicate balance of our ecosystems and protect the diverse species that call our planet home.

Seal trapped in plastic litter
Monkey eating litter

​Gunther, Thomas. "Effects of litter on wildlife along roadways." Wildlife Society Bulletin, vol. 32, no. 2, 2004, pp. 524-532.

Jambeck, J. R., et al. "Plastic waste inputs from land into the ocean." Science, vol. 347, no. 6223, 2015, pp. 768-771.

Lai, Olivia. “The Detrimental Impacts of Plastic Pollution on Animals.” - Past | Present | Future, 4 May 2022,

Laist, David W. "Impacts of marine debris: entanglement of marine life in marine debris including a comprehensive list of species with entanglement and ingestion records." Marine Pollution Bulletin, vol. 34, no. 9, 1997, pp. 645-649.

Texas Disposal Systems. “Littering Facts: How Littering Really Affects the Environment | TDS.” Texas Disposal Systems,

Wilcox, Chris, et al. "Threat of plastic pollution to seabirds is global, pervasive, and increasing." Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, vol. 112, no. 38, 2015, pp. 11899-11904.

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