Find out how pollution from plastic, light, oil, and other trash affects Earth.

A sea otter carefully uses its paws to free itself from a plastic bag that’s tangled loosely around its body. This sea otter isn't the only animal to have a dangerous run-in with litter: It’s estimated that about half of all marine mammals have eaten or gotten trapped by plastic.


Plastic pollution is different from paper or food waste because it never fully decomposes, or breaks down into pieces that can be reused by nature. Instead, plastic often ends up in water, where it releases toxic chemicals and can be mistaken for food. In a study conducted by the journal Science, scientists estimate that 8.8 million tons of plastic enter the ocean every year, threatening over 700 species of marine animals.

A bottlenose dolphin plays with a plastic six-pack ring.
A bottlenose dolphin plays with a plastic six-pack ring.
Photograph by Flip Nicklin, Minden Pictures

Plastic trash isn’t the Earth’s only pollution problem. Oil accidentally spilling into the sea, agriculture products like fertilizers and pesticides seeping into the soil, and even excess noise and light can pollute the environment.

For instance, the sounds made by ships mess with whale calls, and bright lights can confuse animals such as birds and newly hatched sea turtles.


Once released into the environment, pollution can affect wildlife habitats for years. It’s easy to blame factories, but some of the mess comes from everyday human activities. For instance, car exhaust fumes and excess garbage can seriously harm Earth’s health.

You can probably clean your room in a couple of hours. (At least we hope you can!) But you can’t cram Earth’s pollution problem into your closet. We all need to pitch in and clean up the planet. Look at it this way: Just like your room, it’s always better to prevent the Earth from getting dirty in the first place. Check out these tips for cutting down on your own personal waste.