Sunday, April 7, 2013

The Detrimental Effects of Littering

Sorry McDonald's, but I couldn't find a better picture.
Littering has long been a major environmental problem in Malaysia and is fast becoming a norm in the Malaysian society. Towns, countryside, rivers, beaches, mangroves and even national parks and marine parks fall victim to this unsightly phenomenon. Although it is devastating to see our beautiful landscape smudged by these reckless acts, it is even more frustrating when some people act as if it is none of their problem. Almost everywhere in the country, litter scattered on the ground is a common sight. Night markets, for example, are an easy testimony of our lackadaisical attitudes as they usually do not provide rubbish bins and all waste is left on the ground or goes into the nearest drain. Littering, as defined by the Malaysian Law, is "the throwing, dropping or depositing of any filth, rubbish, litter, glass, tins or other containers, papers, dead animals, waste or flushing water or other refuse, liquid or solid". These irresponsible activities, even though it seems like "small matters" to some, come with a great price to pay. Based on these observations, I would like to discuss some detrimental effects of littering on the environment, animals and humans, in high hopes of helping to raise awareness among Malaysians against littering.

The effects of littering  are obviously not pleasant and can be seen from a range of aspects. Of all the aspects, it seems sensible to start by looking at its adverse effects on the environment, where there are direct implications in a number of ways. First of all, the litter thrown into drains could cause blockages of the drainage system. This would interrupt water flow and thus, results in flooding. Needless to say, floods put people through a lot of trouble. There would be lives at risk and the damage done would cause the government a fortune to repair. For instance, the Stormwater Management and Road Tunnel (SMART), a storm drainage and road structure in Kuala Lumpur, collected so many rubbish daily that it has caused damage to its piping and electricity system. Consequently, a total of RM 144,000 had to be spent annually for the maintenance of the garbage filtration system. From a visionary point of view, this is the money that could be better spent on housing and education. In addition to that, litter left on the ground is also not a pretty sight. Some will eventually be swept to the sea through rivers. Liquid litter will contaminate the water and cause water pollution. This is particularly hazardous as it not only lead to a shortage of drinking water but also limit our supply of clean water for other purposes as well. Therefore, as clean water is such a precious resource with a limited supply, it would be wise to preserve and cherish our rivers and waterways. Rivers, as mentioned by Greenworks, are the lifeblood of the environment. They provide homes for wildlife and plants, water supplies for homes, industries and farms, and places of recreation and enjoyment for us all. Apart from those already mentioned, another possible effect of littering to the environment is that it could sometimes lead to wildfires especially if cigarettes are not being properly put out before being littered. Other than that, decomposition of certain litter could emit harmful gas that contribute to climate change and global warming. Things get even worse if the litter items are not biodegradable because their chemical decomposition takes a very long time  and therefore create long-term damage to the environment.

As much as it is harmful to the environment, littering is also dangerous to animals and wildlife. Litter left on the ground will eventually end up in the sea, where it can be deadly to marine animals. It could kill these animal directly through choking or indirectly by contaminating the water.  Some animals such as birds could get entangled to the litter causing them to die slowly. Animals that ingest litter, whether incidentally or out of curiosity, could die of starvation or malnutrition. The litter could also get stuck in their throats and cause breathing difficulties. Some animals such as hedgehogs are attracted to leftovers and could get their heads trapped inside plastic yogurt cartons, tin cans and polystyrene cups, leading to death by starvation. Other than that, plastic loops can make a similar trap for animals. These have been known to catch and kill diving birds when discarded into the sea. Some animals like swans, ducks and geese can get their legs, wings, or necks trapped in discarded fishing line. This would limit their movement and makes them an easy target for predators. Littered broken glasses pose another threat to animals as they can cut animals' feet, while unbroken bottles could be dangerous to many small animals. As an instance, mice might crawl inside bottles to drink water and then cannot climb back up the slippery sides to get out. Lizards might also crawl inside littered bottles or cans to bask in their warm interiors, or to find food. If they are unable to squeeze out again they can die of overheating. These problems can actually be easily avoided by cutting plastic loops with scissors before throwing them away, replacing the lids on bottles and jars before discarding and last but probably the best option, making use of recycling centres.

Littering not only affect the environment and animals, but also has boomerang impacts on us, humans. Most effects on humans occur indirectly rather than directly. As littering is a major cause of pollution, it is not surprising that it also leads to various health problems among humans. The emission of harmful gases as the by-products of litter decomposition could be toxic to human and affect our respiration system especially the lungs and respiratory tract. Furthermore, water contaminated by liquid litter discarded into waterways is likely to cause illnesses if consumed. Children, for example, would be especially affected by this pollution as they have underdeveloped immune system. Litter on the streets breeds rats who carry diseases, destroy and eat crops and food, chew electrical and telephone cables. These would definitely cause catastrophic consequences which are avoidable if appropriate preventive measures had been taken.  Apart from these, certain litter can be dangerous to people particularly when it involves items such as broken glass, rust, needles and syringes.

Having mentioned its detrimental effects on the environment, animals and humans, it is obvious that  littering is indeed a serious problem, especially in Malaysia. However, before we start pointing fingers, blaming each other for this problem, it would be better if we reflect on ourselves first. In my opinion, lack of awareness is a major factor contributing to this environmental problem. Therefore, in order to curb or at least lessen this problem, we need to work hand in hand to raise awareness against littering not only in Malaysia but also throughout the world. A good way to do this is by educating children in schools to value the environment and not to litter indiscriminately. They could be asked to pick rubbish in the school compound so that they know how unsightly and disgusting the experience is and will therefore think twice before littering. A common belief of most people who litter is that there are cleaners and garbage collectors to clean up after them. What they are unaware of is that, cleaners and garbage collectors will still have their jobs even if they do not litter. Therefore, unless this negative attitude is either controlled or wiped out entirely, the world as we know it will cease to exist and we would all be living in an enormous garbage dump, representing major shame to our entire civilization.


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