The Effects of Littering on Humans and Species

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Along with many pollutions in the water (oceans, lakes, rivers, etc.), plastics are one of them. Eight million tons of plastics enter the oceans every year, with 10,000 tons entering one great lake just by us, Lake Michigan. People who helped volunteer clean up ( litter found that eighty-percent of anthropogenic litter on the shorelines of the Great Lakes is comprised of plastics. Cigarette filters are the most common liter on Michigan’s shoreline. Plastics can have negative effects on the lives of many species and can potentially become dangerous once they break down, are consumed by fishes, and enter the food chain. This raises concerns about human health and if it is safe for humans to consume fish and seafood. The answers are unclear as further researches are still needed to be done. The purpose of this paper is to inform the general public about the effects of littering on species and human health (what we know and don’t know), the solutions and to explain why people litter.

Plastics make their way into the water in many ways. Some of the ways are from runoffs, stormwater, people littering and dumping directly into the water and people littering on land and those items getting carried into the water by the wind. One plastic debris in the water is microbeads. Microbeads are used in consumer products such as scrubs, toothpastes, body wash, and nail polish. Their hard and non-dissolving properties make them good exfoliant agents and explains why they are often used. These microbeads go down the drain but because of how small they are, water waste treatment plans sometimes are not able to filter them. This is how some of them end up in streams and lakes. Other plastics debris includes pellets, which are used in producing plastic good that often spill over ships, and waste from fishing activities.

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Overtime, some plastics in the water will sink down while others will gradually break down into what is called microplastics. Microplastics are small pieces of plastics around the size of 1 to 5 mm in diameter. They are broken down due to sunlight exposure, abrasion from currents, and oxidation. Research in 2013 by Mason and his colleagues confirmed that there are microplastics present in Lake Michigan.

Plastic in the ocean is dangerous because species can get tangled up in them, causing them stress. Another reason is because many mistaken them for food, especially microplastics since they are so small and can be eaten. Many predators mistaken ircobrads for fish eggs by because of their round shape. Plastic bags resemble jellyfish and are mistaken as food by turtles. Seabirds are even consuming plastics on the surface of the water, thinking they are food. Plastic fragments were first found in the guts of seabirds in 1960s. We know these animals are consuming these plastics because of animal dissection. Among all these species, the most common one to ingest in plastics is fish. Marks left in plastic debris suggest that fishes often attack and bite on plastics present in the environment. As said in a journal by Driedger, Alexander D.J, et al., ingestion of plastics is harmful because it can cause “internal bleeding and blockage of the digestive tract” and cause death. Fishes can suffer from intestinal injury, which enables their ability to absorb nutrients (nutrients are absorbed in the intestines, so if the intestines are injured then they will not be able to absorb the nutrients).

This can affect their overall behavior such as their ability to spot predators will reduce, their mobility, and their want to feed and reproduce will decrease. A decrease in reproduction will cause a decrease in the population of that specie, which will then affect the ecosystem. It is also harder for turtles to lay eggs when their nesting areas are filled with plastics. Pollutants and other contaminants in plastic can bioaccumulate in fishes and absorb into their tissues. Chemicals found in the tissues of fishes are the same chemicals found in plastics. This is concerning because fishes are a common source of food for humans so those consuming seafood and fishes could potentially be exposed to these toxins. Plastics in the water can also absorb toxins from the environment. Dr. Lorena Rios Mendoza at the University of Wisconsin Superior found that plastic debris on the surface of the water carries polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), both capable of causing cancer, birth defects, and immune system problems. How humans would be affected and the actual potential risk of fish consumption by humans is still something that researchers don’t know but people should still be aware of it since plastics are made of pollutants. We should still try to reduce the amount of plastics in the water to reduce risks. Microplastics can not only get to humans through consumption of fishes, but was also found in sea salt, sugar, beer, and bottles of water through studies that have been done.

Now, if we know that littering plastics is bad, then why do some people still do it? Social sciences said that people are more likely to litter in a littered environment than a clean environment. Many studies were carried to test this. In carrying out these actions, people are acting according to the behavioral norm there, that is to litter or not to litter. This may explain why some places, like beaches, have more litters than others. Someone who sees a person littering in a littered environment will be more likely to litter than seeing someone litter in a clean environment. This explanation is similar to the broken glass theory, which says that someone is more likely to break a crime in a neighborhood that look like there would be crimes there. With this information, we can encourage people to keep their community clean to eliminate littering. This isn’t going to completely stop the liter as it can happen overtime once someone starts the initial litter, but it would help reduced the amount of liter there are and help prolonged the process.

Some potential solutions are to substitute sugar and oatmeal with microbeads as exfoliants. Getting people to clean up the liter in the water would cost money, about 400 million dollars annually. People are coming with ways to reduce the use of plastics. Many places have ban littering on beaches. Illinois became the first state to ban the manufacturing of microbeads in 2018 and is planning to stop selling items with microbeads by the end of 2019. Stores are trying to cut out the use of plastics by charging people for plastics bags and starbucks are getting rid of plastic straws and using a lid with a sip instead. But although some changes are being made, it is still a slow progress and not everyone is doing these things and the manufacturer of plastics is just increasingly going like it already has in the past few years. Some people blame companies for manufacturing plastics, but other also argues that we need them for packaging goods. Some people on the other hand took the blame upon the actions of individuals. Companies can try to find alternatives for plastics.

In conclusion, microplastics are found in our water and food and although the knowledge of these consumption on human health is limited, we should still be aware of what littering could do, try to prevent littering, and find more answers on this topic since we do know that it contains harmful chemicals.

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The Effects of Littering on Humans and Species. (2022, September 15). Edubirdie. Retrieved July 14, 2024, from
“The Effects of Littering on Humans and Species.” Edubirdie, 15 Sept. 2022,
The Effects of Littering on Humans and Species. [online]. Available at: <> [Accessed 14 Jul. 2024].
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