Bay-Friendly Tip: Don’t Litter!

Bay-Friendly Tip: Don’t Litter!

Alyssa Pietraszek, communications intern

What is Litter?

Litter strewn throughout a park in Cranston, Rhode Island

Litter, or the trash left on the ground in public or open areas, is one of the largest issues plaguing the world today. These non-biodegradable items, such as cigarette butts, plastic shopping bags, food wrappers, and soda cans, that are discarded during walks or tossed out of car windows frequently end up washed off of the streets into nearby water bodies or storm drains where they are carried out to the Bay. One of the biggest offenders is plastic, which never biodegrades, and instead turns into smaller “microplastics,” which remain in the environment, are consumed by local marine and wildlife, and can even end up on your plate. Evidence of this plastic contamination is found in all parts of the world, from the most remote places, such as on Mount Everest, to even beyond Earth’s planetary boundary layer. 

Why You Should Care

Despite the global scale of this problem, studies have found that the United States is one of the top contributors of coastal plastic pollution. Besides reducing the aesthetic appeal of an area, this litter poses several additional risks to residents as well. Garbage can be collected by stormwater runoff and emptied directly into nearby water bodies or into storm drains, clogging them and causing increased flooding of nearby neighborhoods. Lighter garbage, such as plastic bags or napkins, can be blown out of overflowing garbage cans, and chemicals, gasoline, pet waste, and other foreign substances can be washed into nearby water bodies. Once the litter enters rivers, streams, lakes, ponds, or the sea, it poses a threat to marine life and results in reduced water quality, leading to beach closures. Birds, turtles, and other marine life can become entangled in fishing lines or six-pack holders, and can mistake litter for food or ingest it accidentally while feeding. Once larger plastic items start to break down into microplastics, these smaller particles become mixed in with the water and sand along the beaches and enter the gills and digestive tracts of marine life that are then consumed by humans. 

A group of volunteers in front of their collected trash at a Save The Bay cleanup at Tongue Pond in Cranston.

Litter and Cleanups in Rhode Island

Litter and plastic pollution are global issues, and Narragansett Bay is no exception, with garbage entering the Bay even from several miles inland. In order to try and combat this issue, coastal cleanups, such as the International Coastal Cleanup, are organized at beaches across the state. The garbage that is collected during these cleanups is reported in the  “Clean Swell” app, and the data helps us understand the most common litter items in the area. Some of the biggest offenders include trash smaller than 2.5 cm (roughly the size of a quarter), garbage associated with eating, such as take-out containers, disposable plates, and food wrappers, cigarette butts, wrappers, or cigar tips, drink containers, such as plastic and glass bottles, cans, and bottle caps, and fishing line, nets, ropes, cages, or buoys.

The break down of litter from each of these major categories collected during the International Coastal Cleanups in Rhode Island from 2015 through 2020, as well as their averages for all six years, are presented below.

Tiny Trash (%) Eating (%) Smoking (%) Drinking (%) Fishing (%) Other (%)
2015 24 15 31 19 3 8
2016 20 13 32 24 2 10
2017 27 14 23 21 3 11
2018 28 9 25 23 2 14
2019 27 12 25 21 3 12
2020 15 9 33 31 1 10
Average 24 12 28 23 2 11


What You Can Do

There are many steps that you can take to do your part and help reduce the amount of litter that enters the Bay:

  • Don’t litter: Dispose of your waste in proper receptacles to prevent it from being washed in the Bay or its tributaries! 
  • Bring an empty trash bag: Bring an empty trash bag with you when you go to the beach in case a trash can is not present or it is overflowing. This way you can easily carry any garbage that you accumulate during your trip back out with you!
  • Pick up after your pets: Pick up pet waste and make sure to dispose of it in trash cans so it does not end up in the Bay, adding bacteria that can be harmful to people. 
  • Set an example: Pick up litter in your neighborhood or when you go to the beach. If others see you cleaning up, they might too!
  • Speak up: If you see your friends and family littering, let them know that it is not okay!
  • Participate in or organize a beach cleanup: Become a Beach Captain with Save The Bay to learn how to organize beach cleanups, or join any of the numerous cleanups running from April through November! 

For more tips, download our Bay-Friendly Living Guide or dig deeper on our tips on the blog.