How Does Littering Affect the Environment and Local Wildlife

Reelfoot Lake State Park in Tiptonville, Tennessee.
Reelfoot Lake State Park in Tiptonville, Tennessee.

Photo Credit Tennessee Vacation – Reelfoot Lake (Great River Road Scenic Byway)

There is no doubt that Tennessee is gorgeous, from the scenic byways to our natural lakes and forests. However, roadside litter in Tennessee threatens our state’s pristine beauty daily.

Not only is all this trash ruining the view, but it is also a silent threat to our wildlife, the ecosystem, the economy and tourism. According to TDOT’s 2022 visible litter study, the litter impacting our state costs the Tennessee government and local businesses over 23 million dollars annually. It’s high time we tackle this issue head-on and collectively take responsibility for this serious problem. 

Effects on the Environment  

Tennessee is known for its lush landscapes and the wildlife that live in its varied ecosystems. But imagine this beauty slowly choked by plastic bags, soda cans and other discarded trash. 

This litter not only destroys the scenery but, takes hundreds of years to decompose, causing long-term damage to our environment. 

Here’s how this litter menace affects Tennessee’s environment:

Toxic Tidbits: Animals, like deer or raccoons, often mistake litter for food, leading to ingesting harmful materials, injury and sometimes death.

Waste Not, Want Not: Items like plastic bags and aluminum cans can take decades, even centuries, to break down, lingering in the environment for long periods.

Dirt Danger: Items like plastic bottles and cigarette butts will take hundreds of years to break down and release harmful toxins into the soil, affecting plant growth and health.

Nuisance to Nature: To top it all off, litter destroys the visually appealing scenery and alters the natural balance of ecosystems, affecting plant and animal life and perpetuating environmental damage. 

Effects on Waterways  

Tennessee has an extensive network of rivers and lakes, vital sources of water for both wildlife and human communities. In fact, according to the Tennessee Environmental Council, our state has over 60,000 miles of rivers and streams and more than 75,000 acres of lakes that source our water supply. But they face significant threats from litter pollution. When litter is improperly disposed of, it doesn’t disappear from the environment. Instead, this trash gets swept into waterways and poses a fatal risk to Tennessee wildlife.

Here are three ways our beautiful waterways are threatened by discarded waste:

Microplastic Menace: Plastic waste breaks down into tiny pieces called microplastics. These are often mistaken for food by aquatic life, leading to the ingestion of toxins and sometimes fatal blockages.

Chemical Contamination: Litter doesn’t just float on the surface it leaches harmful chemicals into the water. This creates an unhealthy environment for aquatic plants and animals.

Algal Bloom Boom: These chemicals can also trigger excessive algal blooms. These blooms deplete oxygen in the water and block sunlight, choking out other plant life, killing marine life and disrupting the aquatic ecosystem.

Effects on Roadways  

With a staggering 88 million pieces of trash thrown on our roads every year, the impact extends far beyond mere aesthetics. Roadside litter not only detracts from the scenic beauty of our state but also poses serious threats to the safety and well-being of our communities. Discarded waste along roadways creates hazardous conditions for wildlife and motorists, increasing the risk of accidents and injuries. Additionally, the accumulation of litter in Tennessee can lead to harmful environmental damage that is costly and dangerous.

Below are three ways in which trash is making our roadways and the environment around them unsafe: 

Wildlife Woes: Animals are drawn to discarded litter, especially food waste, which leads them dangerously close to busy roads and can cause the risk of collisions with vehicles, endangering both wildlife and motorists.

Habitat Havoc: Litter can obstruct natural migration routes and disrupt habitats. When animals’ usual paths are blocked or made unsafe by discarded waste, it disrupts their regular migration and habitats, contributing to ecological imbalances.

Blazing Consequences: Trash thrown on our roadways, such as cigarette butts, can ignite fires, posing significant road hazards and can increase the risk of hard-to-control wildfires. These fires not only detract from the beautiful landscape but can be costly to put out and come with large fines if the prosecutor is caught.

Collective Responsibility  

Addressing the litter disposal issues in Tennessee is a collective effort, and each Tennessean has a crucial role to play. Small changes can add up to make a big difference in preserving the natural beauty and health of our environment. 

Here are some things you can do to be part of the movement!

Designated Dumping: Properly disposing of trash and recycling in bins is a small change that can significantly impact your community. Every item responsibly disposed of is a win for our environment. And when you recycle, you remove that waste from landfills and give something another life further reducing litter.

Load Lockdown: Securing car and truck loads during transportation is crucial to reduce pollution. Ensuring nothing flies out of your vehicle or truck bed while driving is the best way to prevent unintentional littering.

Be Part of the Solution: Participating in a cleanup contributes to a cleaner Tennessee and fosters a sense of community pride. It’s a great way to connect with your community and make a positive impact. Visit our cleanup event calendar to find a cleanup near you. You’ll discover a helpful resource for finding upcoming opportunities to make a difference and keep our communities vibrant and clean.

When you get involved and become part of the solution, you ensure that future generations can enjoy our beautiful state. Small changes make a big difference, and by doing so, we are protecting our scenic landscapes, safeguarding our diverse wildlife, and paving the way for a healthier, sustainable future.

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