standard Littering as a source of urban diffuse pollution and what you can do about it

Undergraduate students in Durham University’s Department of Geography Alan Liotard, Aaron Neill and Miles Wilson introduce the impacts of littering on the health of rivers and wildlife. This is part of a series of posts on urban diffuse pollution awareness. Authors were selected for the Environment Agency’s Pollution Challenge that showcases the best and innovative ideas from students, academics and industry on tackling the problem of urban diffuse pollution in the UK.

Fast food businesses may be very attractive and save you time when you’re in a hurry, but these companies are a major source of the packaging that litters our rivers and riverbanks.


Packaging ends up directly in the river environment when people don’t pay attention to what they are doing. To help tackle the problem of pollution in rivers, it is very easy! You just need to bin your rubbish, or even better, recycle it!


A duck entangled!

In the River Wear in Durham, it has been found that a lot of rubbish in and around the river comes from local businesses such as Burger King, Tesco or Starbucks. This rubbish impacts the landscape visually, and impacts wildlife as well. For example, plastic casings can entangle, trap and suffocate animals found within a river system.

river wear

The River Wear in Durham City: very pretty.


What a shame so much rubbish is found on its banks!

Moreover, when plastics degrade, either by being eaten by animals, or naturally in the river system, toxins can be released into the food web and the surrounding soil, which can poison organisms. These organisms could even be fish that you eat!!!

fish chart

A typical aquatic food web showing where toxins from litter can travel.


To prevent river pollution it is important to encourage people to stop littering before any harm is done. Here are some ideas about how you can help prevent littering in your area.

1. Cleaning up the local environment can help reduce littering behaviour in others: a clean environment is less likely to be polluted and encourages people to respect it more (Broken windows theory).

Broken windows theory

Wilson and Kelling introduced broken windows theory in 1982. It argues that a bad urban environment leads to escalating crime and vandalism, and encourages littering behaviour, whereas if there is a clean, well-ordered environment, it discourages littering and crime.

2. You can campaign for companies to use more reusable and biodegradable packaging (packaging that will rot or be recycled rather than remaining in, or harming, the environment), or labels telling people not to litter. Here are some websites showing some biodegradable packaging designs that have already been used and campaigns you can join:

 3. Encourage companies to reward their customers for not littering and returning packaging to the store. Writing to companies or your local council could help make this happen! We can also work towards fining companies whose products are frequently littered. This could help businesses to encourage their customers not to pollute and maybe they will reduce their production of packaging.

Here is a website that you can use to find out about litter picks and litter picking groups in your local area: and here is a website giving more ideas for what you can do to prevent littering, for example, letter writing:

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