Litter is the New Silent Spring: Simply Cleaning the Mess is no Longer Helping

Alan Bailey
4 min readMay 8, 2021
A woman walks through a landfill, surveying the amount of litter that has accumulated there. Source: The eco guide to disposing of litter | Ethical and green living | The Guardian

“The trash and litter of nature disappears into the ground with the passing of each year, but man’s litter has more permanence.” — John Steinbeck

We’ve all seen it when we pass through in our cars or when walking through the woods for some much needed repose. It makes us nauseous, overwhelmed, and completely heartbroken to see such beautiful landscapes completely covered in trash (well, at least for those of us who don’t try to make them that way). Of course, we’ve all been guilty of having had some blow off from our vehicles without knowing or not taking the time to properly recycle our materials. However, the obscene amount of littering in our country stems from so much more than these simple errs.

Despite all the environmental activism, me and others know that it will take a significant shift in our habits and attitudes to truly begin tackling the widespread situation. It’s great to see so many people and reputable, driven organizations striving to make our world a cleaner place to live, but simply picking up trash from time to time is only scratching the surface of this mound, literally and figuratively. It becomes perfunctory, often representative of knee-jerk reactions that humanity has when faced with threats that go beyond initial comprehension. And this is our problem: we often don’t do enough and wait until the trash becomes almost too much to clear out instead of trying to be more cognizant, to prevent this from reoccurring.

There are too many who don’t care enough about our environment, plain and simple. Besides debate in the belief of climate change, some don’t even have the capacity to recognize the threats that litter poses which are much more than taking away some scenic views. This makes our problem multifaceted. How do we reach the people who don’t care and deliberately use the environment as a personal dump, contributing to already irreparable damage from years of this?

The pernicious effects of microplastics that contaminate our lands/waters tend to be more forgotten and underestimated. Single-use plastics is one of the most profitable industries in the United States and throughout the world, but the true cost of having these products accumulate in our environment is quickly becoming insurmountable. To articulate how devastating these materials are, a recent report by the Ellen MacArthur foundation posited that, by 2050, there could be more plastic in our oceans than fish if we remain obstinate in our neglectful habits.

Plastics don’t break down within the environment like wood or other biodegradables do, instead taking hundreds of years (if not longer) to completely do so. In addition, more wildlife succumb to them through bioaccumulation from ingestion. Generation after generation of species inherit traces of them within their bodies, some chemicals more direct in their monstrous workings than others but harmful nonetheless. Not to forget, but the combination of synthetic chemicals magnify these dangers to biodiversity much more, and the materials that break down from all forms of litter that we observe do these very things.

When it comes to environmental pollution, Rachel Carson was one of the country’s leading experts of how chemicals could destroy a majority of life on the planet, and her research holds true now more than ever as we aimlessly wander into the material unknown. Back in the middle of the twentieth century, the environmental movement only understood the imminent threat of pesticides and their respective chemicals that evolution can’t keep up with. Heart-stopping reports of massive fish kills in rivers, communities immured by these poisons, and increased prevalence of illness and untimely deaths still can’t truly demonstrate how we have too much power to destroy everything that sustains us. If she were alive today, Carson would be stunned by the equally destructive forces of single-use plastics and other types of litter which release chemicals themselves. Like the pesticide industry, it has transformed into a gargantuan propagator of our worst selves, the wasteful and arrogant species that has truly forgotten its connection to the world around it.

This era of complete disregard to not only the aesthetics of our planet but to all those that inhabit it is only exacerbated by the immoral sacrifice of prestige for profit. Corporations would rather end all life as we know it just for one more crisp dollar bill, the only form of green that can’t save us and can’t oxygenate the biosphere. Some would rather litter than feel inconvenienced by simply looking for a trash can. Only when we take action to educate the public on a wide scale about conservation and to fight for better laws will we make any sort of progress.

If we are to mitigate the damages from litter, we must all do our part, no matter how big or small it may be. You never know what difference you’re capable of making until you decide that standing by is no longer an option. There’s no way we can afford more years of these injustices that will ultimately come back to harm us in the end. If we keep thinking that someone else will fix these problems or if new scientific developments will save us the trouble of having to put in the work, time will run out for us to ensure our children and grandchildren of a better future.



Alan Bailey

I’m a graduate from LaGrange College with a B.S. in Biology, striving to be a conservationist and to help our planet.