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Orange County Surge in Litter Negatively Impacts Residents and Wildlife

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Orange County (OC) has had an influx of litter at the start of the new year amid the COVID-19 pandemic. This spike in litter puts both wildlife and humans at a greater risk from water, soil and air pollution. 

The New University spoke with Volunteer Coordinator Suzanne Welsh from the Orange County Coastkeeper on why Orange County is suddenly seeing an increase in litter. 

“People are in fact going outside more,” Welsh stated, indicating the pandemic to be the cause.

According to Welsh, while park and beach visitations are increasing, “Staffing and waste management are not increasing, Orange County is understaffed.”

Due to the lack of staff, trash cans in public areas are overflowing, leaving waste accessible to wildlife, such as squirrels or rats, or exposed to wind. This leaves Orange County dirty and further exposes pollutant contamination. The local animals are harmed as well: either their habitats are destroyed, or they are getting sick and dying. 

Welsh attributes the sources of this problem to single-use products like masks, takeout food packaging, styrofoam, plastic bags, seals containers and 2-packs of drinks. “Where does the plastic go?” she asked.

To counteract this, Orange County Coastkeeper hosts monthly beach cleanup days and expands to volunteer with private corporations and organizations. They have been working with organizations like Stand Up to Trash, Surfrider, Newport Bay Conservatory and the debris taskforce. 

According to Welsh, ways to help prevent this influx in littering include choosing to buy things with less packaging, speaking with retailers and companies on how to use less plastic with products and food, and, when the trash is full after a day outside, taking it into your car and putting it in a trash can in your home.

Concerns were also raised in the Voice of OC on Jan. 6 regarding how trashed beaches, parks and railways are contaminating water and soil, which leads to killing animals and infecting people through skin contact and air.

“There is a higher chance for skin contact with trash as people play in the sand, lie directly on it, and walk barefoot,” the California State Water Resources Board said in the article. “Litter such as shards of glass or metal, syringes and remains of hygiene-related items have the potential to cause physical injury and infections.” 

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), a reduction in littering by 25% can save a community up to $32 million. Littering reduction also provides additional benefits, such as safe outdoor experiences, the safety of several wildlife species and a positive impact on residential health. 

Research studies on the effects of littering on the environment have shown that 40% of litter potentially releases toxic emissions when burned into the air. This makes people more vulnerable to respiratory problems and can worsen previous medical conditions. 

Hanna Bulaj is a City News Intern for the winter 2022 quarter. She can be reached at hbulaj@uci.edu.