We’ve all seen it at one time or another… The stray plastic bag, pirouetting towards a birds nest before taking flight in its aspirational journey to the great Pacific garbage patch. A journey which defies any poetic and artistically visceral connotations and instead breaks down the already objective beauty of nature into a synthetic wasteland. Such is the sight that has become so commonplace that we have begun to accept this waste debris as part of the landscape and whilst it isn’t fair to assume everyone avoids the responsibility of cleaning up, its consistent presence points towards neglectful and apathetic communities.

I’m sure, as you are reading this that you too are unsettled by the amount of litter surrounding your local area or perhaps as a concerned individual you dare to care about how litter is affecting the ecosystem. This article will touch upon how our waste is contributing to existing and potential ecological issues and ways in which you as an individual can help create instantaneous change to better the environment.

So how does litter affect the ecosystem?

Litter in grassland

As the environment changes so too does the behaviour of the species which inhabit it. In this context when litter is added to the environment, foraging habits of species and the construction and establishment of habitats will change. It is also highly likely that the distribution of wildlife in affected areas will change depending on the extent of waste within a defined community. This inevitably leads to changes in food webs and the relationship between all forms of life which only takes the loss or addition of one individual species to an ecosystem.snailtemp

Snails hibernating inside and underneath the litter

An example could be the hibernation and estivation (dormancy during dry or hot period) habits of  terrestrial snails in rural grasslands/woodland. Typically snails try and establish a safe place to retreat such as underneath a tree trunk or leaves, however when confronted with a foreign construction such as a crisp packet or plastic bag, their rare concealing structure among a sea of trees and grass make them ideal and will appeal to a weary mollusc. This poses two ecological consequences, in particular predation. Snails are secondary producers meaning that they eat primary producers (vegetation) and are prey to mammals whose populations are dwindling such as hedgehogs. Plastics are a potential hazard to hedgehogs in search of food and due to their fragility can be easily ingested which can cause asphyxiation. Not only that, plastics such as six pack rings can entangle larger mammals and birds which can ultimately lead to death if not removed and has been a growing problem over the years. This type of litter is mostly associated with anti-social behaviour surrounding green belts and rural woodland which is being combated by police. However their service is social and often the litter remains behind.

The second consequence is speculative because it is still early to know for certain as to whether acquired behavioural characteristics and traits can be passed on to offspring, however evidence is mounting and could prove fatal for species who are forced to adapt and depend on unpredictable human activity. If animals are indeed adapting to unnatural phenomena such as littering then it is possible for a dependency to form which could lessen instinctual behaviour. Such dependencies can be observed in birds who rely on the location of bird feeders to feed their young in rural areas. This is a potentially new fundamental problem for conservationists and although an inevitable consequence due to human population growth, it is a harrowing reminder of our impact on the planet.

How can I help?

Luckily there is one thing we can all do to have an immediate impact on our local environment and that is litter picking. If one person can potentially destroy the balance of an ecosystem by discarding their waste, one person can restore that balance by removing it. It is really that simple. It can take as little or as long as you want and it is something that will have a positive outcome regardless of the amount you collect.

For people new to litter picking it can be a great way of learning first hand just how much our activity is affecting the planet, even at a local scale if you project and imagine the amount of litter you pick up in your region over that of Earth’s populated regions the picture soon comes into focus.

Some tips for beginners:

  • Start by taking bin bags with you whenever you go walking/hiking and collect anything you see during your journey.
  • Join a local group by searching via the litter action website here.
  • Take bags for specific materials so that they can be recycled later on such as bottles, glass and cardboard.
  • Wear high visibility vests to ensure people can see you, especially if you are with a group in a large area.

Health and safety tips:

  • Always consider the potential risks and hazards before you go litter picking.
  • Always wear protective gloves and clothing when going into uncharted terrain.
  • Always take a mobile phone.
  • Always let somebody know where you are going.
  • Children should always be accompanied by an adult.

We host our own litter picking events around the UK which you can learn more about here, however we advice you to visit the litter action website which will direct you to groups according to your postcode.