Litter is waste disposed in the wrong place by unlawful human action and can vary in size of incident, occurrence or items. It can occur as small items like wrappers, large collections of waste or scatterings of litter dispersed around public places outdoors. Litter can be occasioned by malicious, careless or accidental intent and is generally disposed of illegally rather than lawfully. Litter has the potential to cause harm to human health, safety and welfare, it harms wildlife and causes negative environmental impact on Earth. Waste abandoned in a private space is not considered litter. The American Public Works Association standardized the term litter in the mid-20th Century, to be later known as a form of solid waste—"…material which, if thrown or deposited, tends to create a danger to public health, safety and welfare." Litter is categorized into three specific components: hazardous, reusable-recyclable and non-hazardous, non-from trash-hauling vehicles, unsecured loads, or construction sites.
Studies show that areas which are allowed to remain dirty are prone to becoming dirtier, i.e. areas near fast food restaurants, bus stops and cigarette smoking; litter gives "permission" to litter. There are also natural causes such as high winds disturbing litter containers. Lack of environmental awareness is believed to be one of the reasons for littering. Some researches bind littering with lack of education.
Francis McAndrew's Environmental Psychology, a textbook used by scholars to explain littering by humans, reports that women, youth, rural dwellers and live-alone peoples litter more than men, seniors, urban dwellers and multi-person households. Picnickers, hunters, fishermen, campers, motorboaters, water skiers, careless pedestrians, motorists, truck drivers, construction and loading dock workers, are prime litter providers. Prototype research by the state of Texas "profiled" litterers being males, youth under age 25, smokers, and frequenters to bars, parties and fast food restaurants. These research results are replicated by many state governments to tailor and enforce litter eradication programs.
Many factors contribute to why people choose to litter, according to McAndrew. He argues the "presence of other litter" is a powerful instigator. Studies confirm that litter begets litter. A "disconnect from reality" – apathy – is a second dynamic. Research by Keep America Beautiful in 1999 found 75 percent of Americans admitted to littering in the last five years, yet 99 percent of the same surveyed individuals admitted they enjoyed a clean environment. Negligent, lax law enforcement contributes significantly to this disconnect. Generally, violations must be witnessed to be legally pursued. Inconvenience is another influence. Entitlement is a fourth dynamic to why people litter. A fifth factor is class alienation leading to poor education of individuals. "Dumping is a social activity we learn from...parents and pass on unconsciously to...children." Litterers are "raised badly" by parents--"…vandals with little sense [of the] damage they do." The temptation to litter can be motivated "by greed" and ignorance about the law and its actual enforcement, according to a Federal document by The United States Department of Justice, mentioning the criminal intent of suspects arrested for illegal waste disposal, reassured by lax law enforcement. Finally, governmental neglect influences littering. "Government… [has followed] the path of least resistance…[in addressing] externalities…that may pose…health threat[s]…to nearby communities." Culturally biased indifference by public servants causes some communities to have persistent dumping problems.
Litter can harm the environment. It is unsightly and uncollected litter can attract more. Animals may get trapped or poisoned with litter in their habitats. Litter can end up in rivers and canals, polluting the water supply. A large amount of floating waste ends up in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Plastic waste can be consumed by wildlife, with negative health consequences.
Vermin and disease are rife in places with high amounts of litter. Open containers such as paper cups or beverage cans can hold rainwater, providing breeding locations for mosquitoes which have been known to cause disease like the West Nile Virus or Malaria. It is also a road hazard and can occasionally contribute to accidents.
Litter is a breeding ground for disease causing insects and rodents, features most prominently for its "ugliness" that damages scenic environments. Trash collects into streams, and storm water drainage systems, flowing into local bays and estuaries. Cigarette butts and filters, a threat to wildlife, have been found in the stomachs of fish, birds and whales, who have mistaken them for food.
In March 2008 "The American State Litter Scorecard" ranked the fifty U.S. states on overall quality/effectiveness of litter removal programs and was presented at the American Society for Public Administration National Conference. Best states include Vermont, Minnesota, New Jersey, Iowa, Connecticut, New Hampshire, Wyoming and Virginia. Worst states include Mississippi, Nevada, Louisiana, West Virginia, Alabama, Arkansas, New Mexico and South Carolina--most being inside the Sun Belt.
Prior to reforms within cities in the mid to late 1800s, sanitation was not a priority on governments' lists of things to do. Waste was disposed of by the roadside or in small local dumps. It was unsanitary for local inhabitants and the growing piles of waste led to the spread of disease. Farms and gardens have also long recognized the benefits of composting food waste and biodegradable waste.
From ancient Greece to the present day Western hemisphere, humans have thrown unwanted refuse onto streets, countrysides and remote places, unpunished. The only known pre-modern exception, however, was the Arab Empire, especially in Cordoba, al-Andalus, which had facilities for litter collection.
In the 14th century, the rise of waste in Europe helped contribute to the bubonic plague . Black rats carried the fleas which were the vectors for the plague fed off biodegradable waste that was discarded by the public.
During the times of colonial exploration and expansion starting in the 1600s, littering was not uncommon on seafaring vessels. Boats were small, packed with goods, cramped with people, and dirty. After meals people would discard leftovers or broken plates or cups by throwing them overboard into the sea. Certain goods that were found to be tainted or broken were also thrown overboard. During George Washington's famous crossing of the Delaware River to defeat the Hessians, littering had occurred. Washington's men had carried small supplies of food onboard with them, but prior to battle, the food was tossed away. In present day, litter is all around us. City streets and sidewalks are covered with candy bar wrappers, soda bottles, tissues and papers. Waste is often thrown out of windows of automobiles or out of hands of people. This is done intentionally for the discarding of unwanted goods. It can be considered both unsightly and rude.
In the United States, litter laws, enforcement efforts, and court prosecutions are used to help curtail littering. All three are part of a "comprehensive response to environmental violators", write Epstein and Hammett, researchers for the United States Department of Justice. State laws appear to take precedence over municipal ordinances in controlling litter and act as public safety, not aesthetic measures. Similar state to state, laws define whom the laws apply to, the type or "function" of the person committing the action, and what items must be littered or dumped to constitute an illegal act. Municipal ordinances and state statutes by-and-large require "human action" in committing an act of illegal littering or dumping for one to be "held in violation." Some believe anti-litter statutes are "simply not enforced, or with the lowest priority." There is "...a perception [by law enforcement personnel] that environmental crimes are not real crimes." Most states require law enforcement officers to "...witness the illegal act to write a citation." Since the 1970s court prosecutions became important in fighting illegal littering and dumping. A national survey of prosecutors noted the most important factor to prosecute an offense was the "degree of harm" it posed and the "criminal intent" of the offender. America's most prosecuted littering offense involve illegal disposals of hazardous waste. Civil and criminal fines are the "most common strategy governments use to control environmental behaviors." Most criminal offenders choose to settle out of court. For small littering, a monetary penalty and/or a specified number of hours picking up litter or community service is typical chastisement. Going to jail for a littering/dumping conviction is still a rarity.
For example, in the U.S. state of California, the punishment for first-time littering starts at a 100 (USD) fine and eight hours of picking up roadside litter. A defendant's third offense and all subsequent offenses are punished with a minimum penalty of a $750 fine and 24 hours of litter cleanup (per offense). Such penalties are often prominently posted on roadside signs.
In Georgia, the Comprehensive Litter Prevention and Abatement Act was signed into law in 2006. Litterers can be fined up to $1,000 and be ordered to clean a littered area in the community.
In the UK there is a maximum fine of £2,500 for persistent littering. Different local authorities also have the powers to impose on the spot fines to those caught littering. These are generally under £100.
Cases are heard in the Magistrates' Court. Approximately 400 people were prosecuted last year by the police for littering. Alternatively, in some areas you could get a £50 fixed penalty fine for littering from the local authority litter warden. The Offence of Leaving Litter (section 87 of the Environmental Protection Act 1990) says that if a person drops, throws deposits or leaves anything so as to cause defacement in a public place; they could be committing a littering offence. The same applies if you see litter thrown from cars. Police officers or litter wardens are empowered and trained to deal with offenders. If you have information about a littering incident you could report it to the police, the local authority or a litter warden, but it is up to them to decide whether they wish to proceed any further. Whilst it is possible to take a private prosecution, it would be at a person's own expense and you will need strong evidence to prove your case in court.
Some jurisdictions offer small bounties for the cleaning of litter (for example, requiring people to pay a deposit on bottles, which is only returned when the bottles are returned). In some countries such as Australia, certain areas have a similar scheme but the person bringing the bottle back in gains a small reward.