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Litter is not only just unsightly, but it can also cause serious health and environmental issues. Many everyday products that are thrown away as litter take years, or even decades, to degrade. In addition, much of what people throw away as "litter" can ultimately find its way back into the population and cause serious health concerns. As a response to the problem of littering, many jurisdictions throughout the world have enacted littering laws. Both civil and criminal penalties can result for violators of littering laws.
Litter can be anything from a candy wrapper carelessly thrown out a car window to hazardous chemicals dumped on public or private lands. The problems associated with litter can be costly and potentially dangerous. Throughout history, litter has been responsible for causing, or contributing to, many epidemics, including the bubonic plague which killed millions during the 14th century in Europe. Rodents carrying the plague-infected fleas were drawn to the food thrown out as litter along city streets, which contributed to the spread of the plague. In the modern world, the same concerns still exist, as well as others, such as chemicals which are carelessly thrown out as litter that can find their way into human water supplies.
Most jurisdictions throughout the world have enacted some form of littering laws in an attempt to combat the problems associated with littering. In some countries, such as Singapore, a fine for littering can be extremely expensive, which has led to Singapore's reputation as one of the cleanest areas in the world. In other countries, such as the United States and Australia, individual states or territories are responsible for littering laws within their own jurisdictions.
Laws that address littering of trash or refuse are generally civil in nature, meaning an offender will receive a fine for a violation of the law. The amount of the fine may vary greatly depending on the jurisdiction, as well as the amount of litter, or where the offender littered. Littering on private property may also be considered trespassing, which could lead to criminal charges for the offender in some jurisdictions.
Litter is not limited to trash or refuse. A person may also be charged with littering on a much larger scale, such as when a contractor dumps construction materials in an area that is not designated for dumping. In many jurisdictions, special laws dictate where certain material may be dumped. For example, asbestos, bodily fluids and chemicals, along with other potentially hazardous materials, may only be disposed of in certain areas for public safety reasons. A violator of littering laws that deal with disposal of hazardous materials is likely to face serious criminal charges.