Climate Action

How Our Trash Impacts the Environment

By Austin Downs, Richard Acevedo and Kennedi Humble

Due to the mass amounts of unsustainable, human-generated waste entering our environment, the detrimental effects of pollution have continued to negatively impact numerous ecosystems around the world. Different types of waste, such as microplastics, are continuously polluting our oceans and landfills due to the lack of biodegradable and recyclable materials within these pollutants. A recent study found that out of the 400 million metric tons of plastic waste produced annually, only 9% is successfully recycled. (Find out more about plastic pollution and how you can help reduce your own waste.) In 2017, for instance, the Environmental Protection Agency calculated the United States’s total generation of solid waste to be around 267.8 million tons, ultimately representing a 5.7 million waste increase since 2015. All together, unsustainable waste has negatively impacted the environment through its contribution to worsening the climate crisis, wildlife population, and our very own public health. 

Climate Change

The way our society disposes of waste is not only extremely troubling, but has become increasingly irresponsible as well. Our government leaders have failed to implement sustainable foundations into action to allow our environment to successfully mitigate and adapt to climate change. For example, when looking at the relationship between greenhouse gas emissions and landfills, researchers found that 20% of the total human-driven methane emissions have been produced from waste landfills, and 91% of these landfill methane emissions have been caused by open-trash incineration. Considering that approximately 65% of the United State’s waste is being discarded in this manner, the crucial lack of sustainable government regulations and involvement on the waste disposal process continues to contribute large-scale risks to both our atmosphere and the people that live near these burning sites.


Ecosystems vary widely from location to location. However, one of the most dire consequences of our global waste problem manifests itself in relation to our marine life and waterways. In other words, human-generated waste affects mass amounts of aquatic beings that are dependent on the ocean for their livelihood. Numerous marine species consume mass amounts of plastic or solid waste due to their inability to distinguish between food and waste and are continuing to have traces of pollutants within their body. Researchers have found microplastics in 100% of turtles, 59% of whales, 36% in seals, and even 90% in seabirds they examined. Not to mention, waste pollution is often deadly, resulting in over 100,000 marine mammals to be killed annually. When it comes to biodiversity, our waste problem is severely plaguing the health of the world’s species.

Public Health

Human health is at risk through our lack of environmental awareness and action. If our society continues to produce large amounts of trash without proper disposal, it will be the downfall of humanity, wildlife and ecosystem well-being. We cannot prevent or promote longevity if humankind does not adapt sustainable behaviors toward our Earth. If emissions from waste disposal continue to increase, climate will not only be negatively impacted, but human health as well. Through environmental contamination, one can develop diseases, such as asthma, birth defects, cancer, cardiovascular disease, and more. These issues will continue to increase if environmental action is not established in the near future.

Austin Downs is the coordinator for the Great Global Cleanup. 

Richard Acevedo is a Fall 2019 intern.

Kennedi Humble is a Fall 2023 intern