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Last updated: 26 April 2024

How Detrimental is Land Pollution for the Environment? Statistical Fact

Land pollution is affecting earth land surface

Land pollution, a critical environmental issue, arises from the deposition of solid and liquid waste materials on the land. These pollutants degrade the soil and groundwater quality and have far-reaching effects on human health, biodiversity, and the climate.

According to the United Nations Environment Programme, "Each year, the world marks World Soil Day on December 5th to raise awareness about the growing challenges in soil management," an often-overlooked land pollution crisis. 

With over 400 million tons of hazardous waste produced annually and soil pollution affecting at least 3.2 billion people – 40% of the world’s population- the problem's scale is undeniable.

Land pollution is not just an environmental issue; it threatens food security and human health. Contaminants in the soil can reduce crop yields and make food unsafe for consumption. The European Environment Agency reports that over 80% of soils tested contained pesticide residues, indicating widespread contamination. 

TRVST World states, "These polluted lands may lose their agricultural value, turn to desert, or become uninhabitable wastelands", to underscore the urgency of the matter.

Join us as we examine the causes behind land pollution, its dire environmental effects, and the critical steps needed to mitigate this silent disaster.

What do we mean by land pollution?

Land pollution refers to the degradation of the Earth's land surfaces, often caused by human activities and their misuse of land resources. It encompasses the deposition of solid or liquid waste materials on land or underground in a manner that can contaminate the soil, threaten public health, and cause unsightly conditions and nuisances. 

This pollution can arise from various sources, including municipal solid waste (MSW), construction and demolition (C&D), hazardous waste, agricultural chemicals, industrialisation, mining, landfills, and untreated human sewage. 

Causes of land pollution

Land pollution originates from various sources, including

  • Municipal Solid Waste (MSW): Nonhazardous garbage, rubbish, and trash from homes, institutions, commercial establishments, and industrial facilities.
  • Construction and Demolition (C&D) waste: Wood, metal objects, concrete rubble, asphalt, and other materials from construction or demolition.
  • Hazardous waste: Harmful substances generated by industries or commercial facilities, including dioxins, PCBs, cyanides, and strong acids.
  • Agricultural activities: Runoff from pesticides, herbicides, fertiliser, and animal waste.
  • Mining and industrial waste: Spoil tips containing toxic substances that seep into the ground
  • Deforestation and soil erosion: Clearing forests for development or wood supply loosens the soil, leading to erosion and barren land.
  • Landfills: Toxins from garbage in landfills can seep into the earth and spread pollution.

The environmental impact of land pollution

Over 75% of the Earth's land area is now considered degraded, with projections suggesting this could rise to 95% by 2050 if current trends persist. This degradation impacts 3.2 billion people worldwide, compromising food security, health, and biodiversity. 

According to the United Nations, annual greenhouse gas emissions from degraded land accounted for up to 4.4 billion tonnes of CO2 emissions. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) also notes that changes in land use can be significant, with net global greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture, forestry, and other land use over 8 billion metric tons of CO2 equivalent, or about 24% of total global greenhouse gas emissions.

Soil pollution, a significant component of land degradation, contributes to over 500,000 premature deaths annually, disproportionately affecting vulnerable populations like children and the elderly. 

The financial burden of addressing contaminated soil is substantial, with public and private expenditures reaching approximately GBP 204 million annually. The health implications are equally dire, with soil pollutants affecting various organs and systems in the human body, leading to diseases and conditions that can be fatal. 

To illustrate the extent of land pollution worldwide, the following table provides a concise overview based on available data:

Country/RegionKey Fact
GlobalOver 75% of the Earth's land area is degraded.
The United StatesProduces 292.4 million tonnes of waste annually.
ChinaDue to pollution, 20.8% of soil poses a cancer risk in children.
BrazilIt is home to one of the largest dumping sites, the estrutural landfill.
Globally,60% of all plastic produced is still in the environment.

Over 20 million acres of agricultural land in China have been polluted by toxic elements such as lead, cadmium, and zinc, affecting 25% of the country's total farmland. This is just one example of the global scale of land pollution, which affects developed and developing countries alike.

What is so bad about land pollution for the environment

Land pollution has several detrimental effects on the environment:

  • Contamination of drinking water: Pollutants can leach into groundwater, affecting the quality and safety of drinking water.
  • Loss of fertile land: Polluted soil can become infertile, reducing its ability to support agriculture and leading to food scarcity.
  • Climate change: Landfills emit methane, a potent greenhouse gas, contributing to global warming.
  • Biodiversity loss: Toxic chemicals can harm or kill plants and animals, disrupting ecosystems and food chains.
  • Health hazards: Contaminated land can be a source of health problems for humans, including respiratory illnesses, cancer, and congenital disabilities.
  • Soil erosion: Unsustainable agricultural practices and deforestation can lead to soil erosion, reducing the land's productivity.

What is the impact of land pollution?

The impact of land pollution is extensive and multifaceted, affecting various aspects of the environment and human health:

  • Health issues: Exposure to soil pollutants can lead to respiratory illnesses, cancer, congenital disabilities, and other health problems.
  • Economic losses: Contaminated crops and reduced agricultural productivity can lead to significant financial losses.
  • Ecosystem damage: Pollution can alter ecosystems, destroy habitats, and reduce biodiversity.
  • Urbanisation and construction: The expansion of cities and infrastructure development leads to the displacement of natural soil layers, contributing to land pollution.

Total impact per year

  • Grain contamination: 19 million tonnes of grain are contaminated annually due to heavy metals from land pollution, resulting in approximately £2.6 billion in economic losses.
  • Hazardous waste: Around 400 million tons of hazardous waste are produced annually.

Impact per day

  • Soil loss: The planet loses approximately 65.75 million tonnes of topsoil daily due to land pollution.
  • Breaking down the annual impact, it equates to roughly 24,657 deaths per day due to pollution-related issues.

Impact per usage

  • Oil spills: For every 1 million tonnes of oil transported, 1 ton is spilt, contributing to land and water pollution
  • Each instance of improper waste disposal or agricultural runoff contributes incrementally to the overall problem, with effects that can last for years due to the persistent pollutants in the environment.

For example, improperly disposing of a single battery can contaminate large areas of soil and water with heavy metals. Each instance of littering, whether a cigarette butt or a plastic wrapper, contributes to the monumental problem of land pollution.

Statistics, facts and figures about land pollution

The statistics and facts presented underscore the urgency of addressing land pollution. It is a complex issue with far-reaching consequences for the environment. 

According to environmental sources like Statista, EPA, UNEP and the European Environmental Agency, contamination of the Earth's surface, where waste materials change the natural soil, has various negative consequences.

Global overview of land pollution

  • Annually, over 400 million tons of hazardous waste are generated worldwide.
  • The planet loses 24 billion tonnes of fertile topsoil each year due to land pollution.
  • Over 75% of the Earth's land area is already degraded, and if current trends persist, this figure is estimated to rise to 95% by 2050
  • Over 93% of landfills across the globe are considered unsustainable or unsanitary, contributing to soil, air, and water pollution.
  • Land degradation directly impacts 3.2 billion people worldwide, affecting their well-being and livelihoods.
  • The most significant land pollutants are pesticides, heavy metals, industrial waste, landfills and plastic debris.

Land pollution by continent and country

Asia

  • In China, 82.8% of the soil contains copper, lead, mercury, and arsenic contaminants.
  • It is the largest emitter of CO2, a byproduct of waste that contributes to land pollution
  • 20.8% of soil poses a cancer risk in children
  • India generates over 150 million metric tons of agricultural waste annually.

Europe

  • Over 80% of soils in a European study contained pesticide residues.
  • In Europe, 80% of land pollution is attributed to agricultural activities.

North America

  • The United States generates over 328 million tons of solid waste yearly.
  • An estimated 40% of U.S. landfills are contaminated with hazardous waste.
  • In the United States, land pollution waste reached 292.4 million tonnes.

Africa

  • A child dies every 8 seconds due to polluted water, often linked to land pollution, predominantly in Africa.

    Australia

    • Waste produced per person in Australia increased by about 80% from 1997 to 2007

    Brazil 

    • Estrutural landfill covers about 136 hectares.

      Top largest economies contributing to pollution

      The largest economies significantly contribute to land pollution through industrial activities, agriculture, and improper waste management. Given the complexity of land pollution and the various contributing factors, we have identified some contributors to environmental degradation, which often correlates with land pollution.

      RankCountry/EconomySector Contributing to Land PollutionKey PollutantsContribution to Land Pollution (%
      1ChinaIndustrial (Copper, lead, mercury, arsenic), AgricultureCO2, Nitrous Oxide, Pesticides30
      2United StatesIndustrial, Agriculture, WasteCO2, Methane, Chemical Wastes15
      3IndiaAgriculture (Fertilisers, pesticides), Waste Methane, Chemical Runoff7
      4European UnionIndustrial, AgricultureCO2, Hazardous Wastes5
      5RussiaIndustrial (Oil, coal, gas, deforestation)Waste CO2, Industrial Chemicals5
      6JapanIndustrial ( Fossil fuels, greenhouse gases)CO2, Industrial Wastes4

      Is land pollution toxic?

      Land pollution, also known as soil pollution, can indeed be toxic. It is caused by xenobiotic (human-made) chemicals or other alterations in the natural soil environment. 

      Industrial activity, agricultural chemicals, or improper waste disposal typically cause this pollution. The most common chemicals in land pollution include petroleum hydrocarbons, polynuclear aromatic hydrocarbons, solvents, pesticides, lead, and other heavy metals. 

      Over 20 million acres of agricultural land in China have been polluted by toxic elements such as lead, cadmium, chromium, tin, and zinc, about 25% of the country's total farmland. This poses significant risks to human health, the environment, and food security. 

      It is a complex issue with various sources and pollutants that can have long-lasting and far-reaching effects.

      Is land pollution degradable?

      Land pollution is a form of land degradation resulting from the accumulation of waste and contaminants in the soil and groundwater, leading to a wide range of environmental issues. 

      Moreover, this degradation leads to soil erosion, diminishing the land's productivity and ability to support various life forms. 

      In addition, land pollution depends on the type of pollutants involved. Biodegradable waste, such as organic matter from households and agriculture, can decompose naturally over time. However, non-biodegradable pollutants, including plastics, heavy metals, and certain chemicals, persist in the environment for years, posing long-term risks.

      FactorImpact on Land PollutionPotential for Degradation
      Agricultural ActivitiesHighMedium (with sustainable practices)
      Industrial WasteHighLow (persistent pollutants)
      Urbanization & ConstructionMediumMedium (with better planning)
      Mining & ExtractionHighLow (persistent pollutants)
      Improper Waste DisposalHighHigh (with improved practices)

      Preventing and mitigating land pollution requires a multifaceted approach, including changes in policy and regulation, sustainable agricultural practices, proper waste management, and public awareness and education on recycling and composting. 

      Is land sustainable?

      The sustainability of land is a multifaceted issue that encompasses the management and use of land resources in a manner that maintains their productivity and utility for future generations.

      The FAO implements various SLM-related programs and approaches to combat these issues, such as farmer field schools, conservation agriculture, and integrated land and water management.

      In the Tigrai region of Ethiopia, for example, implementing SLM practices has been shown to significantly increase crop production, with users of SLM practices experiencing a 77–100% higher crop production value than non-users. This increase highlights the effectiveness of SLM in enhancing land productivity and sustainability.

      Moreover, projects such as this will help to rehabilitate degraded land, ensure the sustainable use of land resources, and maximise resilience against environmental challenges.

      Solutions to land pollution

      Addressing land pollution requires a multifaceted approach:

      1. Proper waste management: Efficient disposal and recycling of waste can significantly reduce land pollution.
      2. Sustainable agriculture: Practices such as crop rotation, organic farming, and reduced use of chemicals can help maintain soil health.
      3. Reforestation and sustainable forestry: Planting trees and managing forests sustainably can prevent soil erosion and degradation.
      4. Public awareness and education: Informing the public about the consequences of land pollution and ways to prevent it is crucial
      5. Recycling and composting: Reducing solid waste in landfills and repurposing waste materials. Encouraging recycling and minimising waste production can significantly reduce the amount of waste in landfills.

      Comparative analysis of land pollution and alternatives

      Alternative to Land PollutionEnvironmental BenefitEconomic BenefitsHealth Benefit
      Sustainable AgricultureReduces chemical runoff preserves soil healthLowers input costs, increases soil fertilityReduces exposure to harmful chemicals.
      Recycling and CompostingDecrease landfill use, reduce methane emissions,reduce waste management costs,and lower pollution-related health risks.
      ReforestationEnhances air quality, prevents soil erosionCan provide economic benefits through forestry,and Improves overall ecosystem health.
      Proper Waste ManagementPrevents soil and groundwater contamination,Reduces long-term remediation costs,Prevents diseases associated with pollution.
      Pollution Prevention (P2)Minimizes waste generation, conserves resources,It lowers operational costs, reduces liability, andDecreases the risk of illnesses from pollution exposure.

      The alternatives to land pollution are not only environmentally sustainable but also economically viable and beneficial to human health.

      Environmental impact compared to everyday things

      When considering the environmental impact of our daily lives, it's essential to understand how everyday items and activities contribute to land pollution and CO2 levels.

      Land pollution is closely tied to CO2 emissions, as certain land use practices can sequester or release carbon into the atmosphere. For instance, agriculture and deforestation are significant sources of greenhouse gases. Understanding the carbon footprint of everyday items is crucial for making more sustainable choices.

      Everyday items and their carbon footprint

      Everyday items, from the food we eat to the products we use, have a carbon footprint associated with their production, use, and disposal. Here's a brief overview of some everyday items and their environmental impact:

      • Emails: A short email can generate 0.2g of CO2e if sent from phone to phone and 0.4g of CO2e if sent from laptop to laptop. A long email sent to 100 people can generate 29g of CO2e.
      • Paper bags: A recycled and lightweight paper bag generates 12g of CO2e, while a paper bag from a clothing store made mainly from virgin paper generates 80g of CO2e.
      • Food: A 250g raw steak from deforested land in Brazil has a carbon footprint of 17.8kg of CO2e. Other food items have varying footprints, such as 1.8kg CO2e for a 75g serving of beef, 7.7kg CO2e for lamb, and lower impacts for plant-based foods like tofu (1.36kg CO2e) and vegetables (much lower).
      • Transportation: Short distances by car (e.g., London to Paris) can generate 2,500g / 2.5kg CO2e, while flights have higher footprints, such as 32,000g / 32kg CO2e, for longer distances.
      • Home appliances and electronics: These items contribute significantly to carbon emissions through production, use, and disposal. For example, a laptop that lasts for 4 hours can generate 172g CO2e.
      • Cosmetics with microbeads: These contribute to microplastic pollution, with an estimated 1.3 million tonnes entering marine habitats annually.
      • Disposable chopsticks: These are seemingly innocent items, but their production contributes to deforestation and waste.
      • Capsule coffee machines: Over half a million tonnes of coffee capsules are thrown into the trash yearly, adding to landfill waste and CO2 emissions.

      Comparison with other environmental impacts

      • Agriculture and forestry: The agricultural sector accounted for 10% of total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions in 2021, with a 7% increase since 1990. Land Use, Land-Use Change, and Forestry (LULUCF) activities in the U.S. have resulted in more CO2 removal from the atmosphere than emissions, making it a net sink.
      • Degraded land: From 2000, annual greenhouse gas emissions from degraded land accounted for up to 4.6 billion tonnes of CO2 emissions.
      • Reusable vs. Single-use items: Some reusable kitchenware items, like bamboo drinking straws and beeswax sandwich wraps, may never break even regarding energy and greenhouse gas emissions compared to their single-use counterparts due to the resources required for washing and maintenance. 

      Note: The CO2 emissions are based on current data. The land pollution potential is a qualitative assessment based on the impact of waste and land use changes.

      Frequently asked questions about land pollution

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