10 Things That Pollute The Environment In 2024 (+Swaps)

10 Things That Pollute The Earth + Swaps

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Have you ever wondered what is the most common type of trash found in our environment? 

Every year, the International Coastal Cleanup creates a list of the things that pollute the earth & our oceans the most, so I took their last reports (from 2021 & 2022) and collected the 10 most common items.

For each item, you’ll find ideas, tips, and easy swaps that are sustainable and better for the environment.

Alright, let’s begin!

10 Things That Pollute The Earth & Eco Solutions:

1. Cigarette butts

cigarette butts pollution

The most common thing I often see is people finishing their cigarettes, and throwing the ‘butts’ on the ground. Unfortunately, it is kind of ‘socially acceptable’ to do this. Because of this, tobacco products are the world’s largest volume (38%) of litter. 

5.5 trillion cigarettes are consumed globally every year, most of which end up in our environment. Cigarette butts aren’t simply litter; they are also responsible for:

  • Damaging habitats and ecosystems
  • Starting destructive fires
  • Poisoning both wildlife and humans
  • They cost lots of money for cleanup and disposal (almost $11.5 billion annually) 

I wrote a full article explaining better how smoking affects the environment, so if you’re curious, you can check it out. 

Eco-friendly ideas:

  • Always dispose of cigarette butts properly 
  • If you are a smoker, get yourself a pocket-size stainless steel portable ashtray, for cases where there isn’t a trash can nearby
  • Get plant-based biodegradable cigarette butts
  • Switch to e-cigarettes to reduce cigarette butt pollution (they are a better alternative, as long as they are disposed of properly) 

2. Plastic food wrappers

plastic food wrapper pollution

During the international cleanup, food wrappers from things like candy, chips, etc. were the second most common trash found. 

Nowadays, most things in supermarkets contain some plastic packaging. This can make it tricky if you want to reduce waste associated with food.

Moreover, there is a rising concern about the possibility of releasing unwanted chemicals from plastic materials into food products, since different substances are added to plastic.

Eco-friendly ideas:

  • Switch to sustainably packaged snacks & choose loose snacks (nuts, fruits, or make more nutritious homemade snacks & goodies)
  • Try to find local bulk stores where you can buy your grains, nuts, seeds, and legumes in reusable containers or jars
  • Buy loose fruit & veg from local farmers markets or supermarkets in your reusable bags
  • Choose items in glass or aluminum packaging, and reuse & recycle them afterward 

3. Plastic straws & stirrers

plastic straws and stirrers

Just in the US, over 500,000,000 plastic straws are used every day. Usually, straws end up in landfills or oceans, where they hurt wildlife & marine life.

They are currently the 8th most found ocean trash in cleanups by quantity. What’s worse, it takes around 200 years for them to decompose. Once they break down into smaller pieces, these microplastics will keep polluting our planet, sneaking into our drinking water and food.

Eco-friendly idea:

  • Opt for reusable straws made of aluminum, glass, or bamboo
  • Make a personal commitment to refuse and say “no” to plastic straws

4. Plastic utensils

plastic utensils

Single-use plastic utensils are everywhere – fast food restaurants, ice cream shops, festivals, etc. The waste from plastic utensils is enormous – 40 billion per year, just in the US

The recycling rates are close to non-existent, so most of it ends up in our oceans and landfills.

Eco-friendly alternative:

5. Plastic & glass bottles 

plastic and glass bottles

A million plastic bottles are sold around the world – every single minute. This is equivalent to about 20,000 plastic bottles every second. Ughhhh

(Click here to see a visualization of the ‘drowning in plastic bottles’)

Between 5 and 13 million tonnes of plastic find its way into our oceans and is eaten by fish, sea birds, and other sea species. According to research, the oceans will contain more plastic than fish by 2050, and the estimated decomposition rate for plastic bottles is 450 years.

Based on the the International Coastal Cleanup lists, it includes plastic bottles, but also glass ones.

Eco-friendly ideas:

Related post: What Is The Healthiest Water Bottle To Use?

6. Plastic bags

plastic bags

Worldwide, we use around 160,000 plastic bags, every second. To make things worse, less than 1% is recycled and around 10% of this plastic waste ends up in our oceans, affecting marine life. Another type of plastic bags that cause lots of pollution is the thin ones used for your veggies and fruits. 

Producing plastic bags requires a lot of resources, often petroleum and natural gas, which are non-renewable resources, and create a lot of pollution during manufacturing.

So, plastic bags don’t just harm the environment once we throw them away. They create damage throughout the whole production process. Then, it takes around 500 years to degrade in a landfill. 

But a plastic bag cannot break down or disappear completely. Instead, they photo-degrade, meaning that they become microplastics that absorb toxins and continue to pollute the environment.

Eco-friendly ideas:

7. Plastic cups & plates

plastic cups and plates

2025 million takeaway containers are being used in Europe yearly. Unfortunately, the recycling of disposable takeaway containers is inefficient, and extremely low amounts are actually recycled. (1,2)

A common item that poses various concerns is styrofoam. This material is not only bad for the environment but it involves chemicals that are of serious concern in its manufacturing process. (1,2) When it’s in contact with heat, or any liquid substance, it can leach into the food/drink. 

Inhalation or ingestion can cause dizziness, headaches, and vomiting in humans. Yikes! Styrofoam is non-biodegradable, and Americans alone throw away 25 billion polystyrene coffee cups yearly.

Next are hard plastic cups/plates. They have environmental persistence and the potential to release toxic chemicals. And since such cups are not recyclable, they often end up in landfills and oceans.

Eco-friendly ideas:

  • Choose plant-based compostable takeaway containers – Some places may offer eco-friendly, biodegradable takeout containers, so try to see if you have such options where you live.
  • Bring reusables – A few reusable containers can do wonders with your amount of trash. You can use reusable containers to pack your lunch & avoid buying foods in plastic packaging or use it to get food from restaurants.

8. Plastic lids & plastic caps

plastic lids and caps

Plastic lids contain chemicals of serious concern (1,2,3), and they have a high potential to accumulate toxic chemicals in the environment.

Most coffee cup lids cannot be recycled, and because of the material they are made of, there is a possibility of leaching dangerous toxins into your drink.

Let’s not forget bottle caps. They are among the top 5 items found during beach clean-ups. More than 20 million bottle caps and lids were found, over the last 30 years, during beach clean-up activities around the world. 

Eco-friendly ideas:

  • Get a reusable coffee mug to avoid plastic lids
  • Choose drinks in glass or aluminum bottles & recycle them

9. Beverage cans

beverage cans

The International Coastal Cleanup collected 162,750 beverage cans in 2021, and 267,189 in 2022. 

The good news here is that aluminum beverage cans are highly recycled material and unlike other materials, aluminum retains its properties throughout the process. 

Eco-friendly ideas:

  • Always recycle beverage cans & dispose of them properly

10. Small pieces of trash 

small pieces of trash

“Other trash” refers to items that were found during the cleanups, and don’t fall into a specific category. It was things like indiscernible plastic pieces, clothing, and metal pieces.

They will get smaller and smaller, transforming into microplastics, posing environmental hazards.

The presence of these particles is found in soil, water, and air, contributes to pollution harms wildlife, disrupts ecosystems, and potentially impacts human health through the food chain. 

Eco-friendly ideas:

  • Again, always try to dispose of any small or big trash properly. 


I hope these stats, images, and info didn’t discourage you or make you feel hopeless, but more aware, and able to pick better alternatives from now on. 

By avoiding these polluting items, you can have a positive impact on the environment. While switching to more sustainable alternatives will take a little time, it is best to start making small and gradual changes. 

Let me know what you think of this list, and which item is the easiest or hardest to avoid. 🙂

10 Things That Pollute The Environment
International Coastal Cleanup (ICC), 2018 Report. Source: oceanconservancy.org

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