Litter is all the waste that ends up on the street or in the environment. It is left there by people deliberately or by accident or ends up in inappropriate places. Marine litter concerns litter along the coast and at sea. Floating plastic, i.e. the plastic soup, is part of the marine litter problem.

Uncontrolled disposing of packaging waste is a problem. Packaging waste that ends up on the street or in the environment is a thorn in the citizen's side. It contaminates our living environment and can end up in rivers and seas. Litter has grown into a persistent societal issue and contributes to a negative image of packaging, especially for plastic.

Litter consists primarily of cigarette butts, candy wrappings, chewing gum, paper waste, plastic waste, beverage packaging and their individual parts. Litter has become a persistent societal issue. Marine litter concerns litter along the coast and at sea. It consists of items that were made or processed by humans and:

  1. are left at sea, in rivers or at the beaches deliberately;
  2. arrived at sea indirectly, through rivers, sewers, storms, water or wind;
  3. were lost accidentally, including materials lost at sea due to rough weather.

Floating plastic, i.e. the plastic soup, is part of marine litter. Floating plastic consists of plastic bottles, plastic bags, plastic toys, fishing lines and agricultural plastics. Around 80 percent of waste at sea comes from land and 20 percent from the shipping industry (including fishery) and offshore activities.

Society has been confronting businesses to make them prevent and clean up litter. Litter can cause negative associations with a brand. Companies have therefore been looking for solutions and innovations to prevent litter. And the European Union is imposing guidelines for mitigating litter and the plastic soup. This includes the Strategy for Plastics and the plans for reducing single use plastics (SUP directive).

Packaging type Reduce the use Market restriction Product design Marking requirements Extended producer responsibility Seperate collection Raising awarness
Beverage packaging X   X   X X X
Bags and wrappers         X   X
Drink cups X X   X X   X
Staws   X          
Food container X X     X   X

Overview of European Committee Single Use Plastic guideline measures for plastic packaging. Source: European Committee (12 juni 2019).

In addition, companies may be seeking innovations in terms of materials that reduce litter. Biodegradable packaging material is an example. As it stands, biodegradable plastic does not degrade naturally. It needs special circumstances (composting installations). If this changes in the future, litter that isn’t cleaned up may become less harmful to the natural environment.

Situation in various countries

The Clean Europe Network (the Network) is a pan-European platform where organizations active in the field of litter prevention share experience, expertise, best practice and research with a view to improving litter prevention across the EU. It aims to develop common programmes/methodologies in areas where there is added-value in a European approach. The Clean Europe Network estimates that the total cost of cleaning up litter on the land throughout the EU is somewhere in the range of €10-13 billion. Including the cost of marine litter would boost that cost even higher.

In England, around £800 million (€975 million) is spent per year on litter management. In Scotland, around 250 million pieces of litter are cleared each year, amounting to around 41 thousand tonnes of litter.

In the Netherlands, municipalities are responsible for keeping the public space clean, which includes cleaning up litter.

  • Past
    In the past litter was mainly a municipal issue: how do we keep the outdoor space clean? Lots of programmes have been implemented in the past in order to influence consumer behaviour, such as the Litter Impulse Programme (2007-2009) and the Litter Focus Programme (2010-2012). The Packaging Framework Agreement 2013-2022 contains actions intended to combat litter as well.

  • Present
    Over the past years, the amount and composition of litter in the Netherlands has changed. As a result of changing eating and drinking habits, more and more foods are now available in smaller quantities, packaged individually or fitted with on-the-spot packaging for consumption on the go. Together with municipalities, companies, governments, civil society organizations and consumers, NederlandSchoon ensures that litter is combated and prevented. Societal pressure has turned litter and plastic soup into important issues. Companies want to avoid a negative image caused by litter and feel a sense of pressure from Europe to take action and reduce litter. In addition to influencing citizen behaviour, adaptations are considered in terms of design or in the manner that packaging is issued to combat litter. When it comes to packaging, small bottles and soda cans are considered major causes of litter.

  • Future
    In 2018, the Dutch government has formulated new objectives for reducing litter caused by small bottles. A reduction objective of 70-90% for litter consisting of small plastic bottles was formulated. If independent validation demonstrates that packaging businesses fail to achieve this objective by the fall of 2020, a deposit system for small bottles will be imposed. The efforts that are currently being made to reduce the amount of small bottle litter and/or the potential implementation of deposits, do affect the amount of small bottle litter.

Consumer behaviour


The average consumer opens 7 to 10 items of packaging a day. Packaging affects consumer behaviour when purchasing, using and disposing of the product-packaging combination. The packaging often says a lot about the content but what about the packaging itself? Sustainable packaging can contribute to sustainable consumer behaviour. Plenty of reason to consider how packaging affects consumer behaviour when developing packaging.

Consumers are becoming increasingly vocal. Growing societal pressure is prompting more and more companies to adopt sustainable packaging solutions. Once we consider packaging from the consumer’s perspective, sustainable packaging becomes an important part of the marketing mix as well as an added value for the customer. Three stages are distinguished when it comes to consumer behaviour related to packaging: buying, use and waste disposal.


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