Sure, litter is an eyesore, and it can really be aggravating to see trash along an otherwise pristine backcountry trail, but the impact of litter is far greater than just cosmetic. Litter is dangerous to wildlife in many ways, and careless littering can lead to pretty upsetting results. Here are a few ways in which litter is harmful.
Plastics, Elastic, and Rubber
Plastic and rubber make up a big part of the litter found in the outdoors. Unfortunately, plastic litter is also among the most dangerous litter for wildlife. Plastic bags have an uncanny ability to make their way into water, where fish, birds, amphibians, reptiles, whales, and other animals mistake them for food (a clear plastic bag looks a lot like a jellyfish) or they accidentally ingest the plastic along with actual food. Plastic can cause animals to have intestinal blockages, fill their stomachs, and cause them to die in a variety of ways.
In addition to eating plastic and rubber, many animals get entangled in plastic packaging or rubber bands. Once entangled, animals can suffocate, lose limbs due to loss of blood circulation, or starve. Everything from plastic rings and rubber bands to hair bands and peanut butter jars can pose big risks to wildlife.
Aluminum Cans and Glass Bottles
It's hard to go anywhere these days without finding soda or beer cans and bottles. Every lake, river, and hiking trail is plagued with discarded drink containers. Animals, especially smaller rodents, often get trapped in bottles and cans looking for food. As bottles break, it's easy for their sharp edges to cut animals attracted to the smells inside.
Glass and metals can also be a factor in starting wildfires.
Gum and Food
Food waste seems harmless as it generally will biodegrade, but it can actually be pretty harmful. Food waste can cause water contamination, lead to increased algal blooms, and make animals that eat it sick. Food waste will also attract animals into areas where they come into contact with humans, which often can lead to bad situations, especially in the backcountry.
Gum is especially dangerous. Gum is a common choking hazard for animals, and many birds will not survive eating gum. Fish will also eat gum and it can cause digestion problems. Gum should be packed out and not left in the wild or in the water.
Another very common bit of litter to come across, cigarette butts are a real problem. Birds, fish, and mammals will often eat cigarette butts and they can easily cause intestinal blockages or choking.
Discarding a cigarette has also been the cause of many wildfires. You should never toss cigarette butts aside. Always pack them out.
Fishing line, hooks, and baits are often left along rivers, lakes, and beaches. Baited hooks are often eaten by animals, especially small mammals and birds, though it's common for a hiker's dog to eat a baited hook as well. Ingesting hooks is often fatal for animals.
Discarded fishing line is a major hazard for wildlife. Animals can easily become entangled in fishing line. When changing your line or dealing with bad tangles, it's important that you properly dispose of used line.
It's Easy to Be Better About Litter
Some litter is unintentional, but most of it is just carelessness or a lack of respect for nature. Unfortunately, a few careless campers, hikers, or anglers can really make areas look messy and create a number of hazards for wildlife. Even if we can pack out everything we pack in, sometimes it takes a bit more effort. If we can all pack out one or two things we find during outings, we can have a huge impact. I believe that responsible hikers and anglers vastly outnumber the problematic ones, so a little vigilance can really go a long way.
Our upcoming product, the Bring it Out Bag will make packing trash out easy and convenient. We're hoping to have them available by mid to late April. And even if our bag doesn't interest you, please consider joining our efforts in keeping our backcountry a bit more clean.