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What is litter?

Litter is defined as “waste in the wrong place”.

Items may be thrown down, dropped or deposited in a public place by any person and is left there. Escaped items from waste containers should also be treated as litter.

Litter items vary: those we see in our streets, parks, roadsides and beaches can range from commonly seen items like cigarette butts and sweet wrappers to more unusual items such as toys and clothing.

There are multiple ways we may end up with litter. Windy weather, birds and other animals can cause once contained waste to become litter and there will of course be incidents of accidental littering. However, people also purposefully litter and with increasing single-use items and consumption habits this has caused a worsening state of our local environment.

How much litter is there?

Work by Zero Waste Scotland shows that 15,000 tonnes of litter are collected each year – that is 250 million items equating to 50 pieces of litter for each person in Scotland.

3 in 4 streets and roads have some presence of litter.

In partnership with local authorities, Keep Scotland Beautiful has been monitoring litter and local environmental quality on our streets and roads in Scotland for almost 20 years. The percentage of sites surveyed with a significant presence of litter is increasing. One in 10 sites now have significant and generally noticeable amounts of litter. There was a slight decrease in 2022/23 which, whilst is encouraging, is still higher than levels seen before the Covid-19 pandemic.

Data also shows litter is more likely found in urban, high footfall areas. There is also a correlation between litter and deprivation. Litter data and the Scottish Index of Multiple Deprivation shows one in four sites having a significant presence in the 20% most deprived areas of Scotland compared to one in 25 in the 20% least deprived – this shows the social injustice of the issue too.

87% believe litter continues to be an issue.

It isn’t just the monitoring data that shows us how big an issue litter is right now. Using three-year rolling averages from the Scottish Household Survey, the proportion satisfied with street cleansing has been declining, with an average of 58.7% of adults satisfied between 2019-2022. The Sottish Litter survey in 2023 found that 90% of respondents believe litter continues to be an issue.

An average of 160 items per 100m stretch of beach surveyed.

A lot of litter ends up in our marine environment. This could come from surface water drains, sewage discharge, wind blown from the land, washed in from the sea or simply dropped there. The Marine Conservation Society reports annually on litter data collected by volunteers and in 2022 recorded an average of 160 items per 100m stretch of beach surveyed. Although there was a slight decrease in the volume of litter collected in 2022 compared to 2021, there is still much work to be done to tackle the issue.

What makes up the litter?

On our streets the latest data shows us that more than half the litter counted was smoking related. These small items are less obvious to the eye but contain harmful materials and can easily make their way into our waterways.

Over 10% of items were drinks items and another tenth were confectionery items. It is obvious this shows food and drink on the go is a major contributor to the litter problem.

A huge amount of marine litter comes from inland, making its way to our seas via rivers and roads. Smoking-related, confectionery and drinks items are common across both terrestrial and marine environments whilst some are more specific to marine environments.

Data collected by volunteers from 2022 shows the top 10 items recorded on surveyed beaches in Scotland are:

  1. Plastic/ polystyrene pieces (small)
  2. Plastic packets
  3. Plastic caps and lids
  4. Plastic string/ cord
  5. Rope
  6. Plastic bags
  7. Plastic bottles
  8. Plastic/ polystyrene pieces (large)
  9. Metal drinks cans
  10. Clothing/ shoes/ towels

Why is there so much litter?

Littering is due to many reasons and is why it is a complex issue to resolve.

Consumption and the levels of single-use items such as packaging have been increasing over time and the effects of this can been seen on the ground. At the same time, there has been a significant decline in public resource and budget to tackle litter. You can find much more on the Causes of litter page.

What are the impacts of litter?

Litter affects us all in multiple ways:

  • Physical wellbeing – less likely to want to exercise or spend time in our local environment
  • Mental health – feel less comfort, pride and sense of life satisfaction
  • Crime and perception of crime – high levels are associated with increase in crime and social disorder
  • Local regeneration – makes local investment less attractive
  • Tourism – harms the scenery and landscape which are the draws to Scotland
  • Costs – at least £53 million of public money spent on dealing with litter and flytipping which could be used elsewhere
  • Biodiversity – litter can disturb, injure or even cause death of our local wildlife

How to teach about litter?

One way to help prevent litter is to ensure everyone knows their responsibilities using education and awareness. There are specific resources that can be used to share information about the litter emergency to young people including in a school environment. Litter and waste is one of the 10 topics for Ecoschools, a free sustainable schools programme. Use the schools filter in the resources to find more.

Further reading

The Community Litter Hub is delivered in partnership with: