If you spend any time following the happenings of “Litter Twitter”—my name for the collection of volunteer litter pickers, community litter-picking groups, and waste management professionals—you’ll see an argument that pops up again and again, with no clear winner in sight.
The question that sparks this debate: why aren’t companies like Coca-Cola, McDonald’s, or Walkers* doing more to clean up the UK and help prevent litter?
The two opposing camps have very definite opinions. One side says that companies shouldn’t have to do anything: after all, it is their customers who drop the litter. The other side proposes that companies should pay more for clean-up and waste disposal because it is their products that end up splashed across our communities and motorways, beauty spots and waterways, damaging our environment.
Personally, I think each side has a point. It is not Walkers who drops the crisp packets, Coca-Cola the cans and bottles, and McDonald’s everything else. I would even argue that the focus on clean-up is potentially misplaced … and too narrow.
I think brands both big and small could do far more about litter than they are at present. Anyone who has engaged with any of the big companies about litter, on Twitter or elsewhere, will know that they would rather sweep the mess under the rug. Cut-and-paste responses to complaints and non-answer answers to queries are the norm. There is an unwillingness to say, “Yes, there is a problem. Yes, we would like to find a solution. What can we do to help?”
Because there are a lot of no-cost and low-cost interventions open to any of the large corporations whose products find their way onto our streets. These are some of the things that companies could be doing to help deal with the problem of litter if they were serious about making a difference through proactive prevention rather than continuing to preach to the choir.
Use customer demographics: It is customers who drop the litter and I can guarantee that major brands know how popular they are with various demographics—they know who their audience is and what message will reach them. If they can sell a burger or a sports drink, why not also sell the idea of proper rubbish disposal? Even if they don’t do the anti-litter marketing themselves (see point 2 below), sharing what they know about their customers and what angle to take with the groups working to stop litter would be a step in the right direction.
At present, most anti-litter interventions appear to be ineffective. Some take a one-size-fits-all approach and apply the same motivation to every littering incident. Others use the information deficit model (“If we just tell people more facts and figures, that will fix things!”), which has been shown to be not-so-useful regarding behaviour change. Even more rely on imagery that has been shown to be ineffective for the purpose.
Television adverts aren’t going to work if the desired audience is on YouTube (or Twitter or Instagram), and pictures of wildlife are unlikely to affect those who do not connect their littering behaviour to environmental damage (or who simply don’t care about the natural world). Why not focus on what is known to work in the key demographics and find out where they spend their time to better target anti-litter messaging?
Address customers directly: Building an anti-litter message into the marketing of a big brand takes guts, but this also has the potential to have the biggest payoff (and they’re spending money on advertising anyway, right?). The Don’t Mess with Texas campaign had great success by implicitly making the claim that Texans didn’t litter (so the Texans who did became less likely to do so). In a similar way, what about making it clear that people who drink Coca-Cola or Red Bull properly dispose of their rubbish?
It’s been done before, by Yorkshire Tea of all companies. From “litter-mageddon” to “the little things matter”, they make the point that litter adds up. Imagine if other companies followed suit: just a small reference here and there to the fact that rubbish should be binned and recyclables recycled. Or that anyone can pick up litter while out and about. Just a little bit of social responsibility could make a big difference.
Focus on point of sale: This may be challenging, but if brands can encourage an anti-litter message at the point where their products are sold, whether in the aisle or in a sign on the door at eye level, it has the potential to hit consumers with an anti-litter message just before the packaging would otherwise be tossed.
Support better binfrastructure: I often refer to Japan when talking about a country who has littering sussed, and one of the fascinating things about it is that there are very few bins. My understanding is that this is because the culture of cleanliness is well established: because there are no mixed messages about how to dispose of waste, everyone knows what to do with their rubbish without thinking about it.
Unfortunately, I think it’s a little too late for the UK to go in this direction since a culture of eating and drinking on the go has taken root instead. Instead, I point to Disney World and the claim that bins are located 30 feet apart. This makes sense to me: with bins every 30 feet, you should always have one in your line of sight. You don’t have to turn around or double back on yourself to dispose of something nor walk any distance out of your way. Getting rid of rubbish is made quick and easy, and it also implicitly establishes the norm—rubbish goes in the bin.
If companies were willing to pay for bins—both the physical binfrastructure and the labour involved in emptying them—I think this may go some way towards cutting down on litter. For example, Zilch micro bins are shown to be effective in tackling cigarette butts and gum litter. Brands would also be able to use such bins as advertising, so it seems like it could be win-win for everyone involved. While I recognise this may be viewed as difficult from a safety and security standpoint, I am also sure that other places have managed to solve it—why not look to them for solutions?
Support a proper deposit return scheme: Approximately half the litter we find in Chippenham consists of aluminium cans, plastic bottles, or glass bottles. A deposit return scheme that supports all of these items, regardless of size, would likely go a long way to cleaning up the UK by providing positive reinforcement to those who dispose of their rubbish properly.
Agree on terminology: At present, the words “biodegradable”, “compostable”, and “recyclable” are almost useless in the UK. Since the government doesn’t seem willing to get involved, it is up to companies to agree to label their products in plain English.
Stop greenwashing: I know that everyone is looking for a way to get positive PR and potentially free advertising, but greenwashing only leads to problems like the confusing terminology above. Do things that will make a genuine positive impact; don’t mislead your audience (Coca-Cola, I’m looking at you).
Reconsider packaging design: This is probably the most complicated of all the suggestions on this list. Packaging design has been honed to be as cheap and easy to transport as possible while still protecting the product within. Going back to the drawing board is costly and will likely require a number of iterations to get right. Yet it has been done before: aluminium cans used to have pull tabs that caused injuries when the tabs invariably came off and were littered.
Some swaps are simple: Lucozade, get rid of your outer label that makes your brand one of the hardest products to recycle now, not in 5 years. Others are more difficult: I would love it if all plastic bottles would forego the separate label that turns into a separate piece of litter and instead simply printed the brand name on the bottle itself. Or if Cadbury and other sweet companies would find a way to eliminate the tearaway strips at the top of packaging that get discarded as soon as the package is open (the “litter on the dotted line” effect).
Even better: consider designing packaging that will dissolve when soaked in water. This is something that is currently being trialled with seaweed packaging and, as any litter picker who has dumped water from a crisp packet can attest, this would go a long way towards tackling litter.
Beyond the big brands that often earn the ire of litter pickers, there is plenty that other businesses can do to help:
Don’t litter: This sounds so basic, but Royal Mail is one of the biggest culprits when it comes to littering on a regular basis—I will never have to purchase a rubber band again courtesy of the posties who drop them across my community. Broadband companies often leave behind bits of wire and other detritus when servicing local exchanges. Staff discard cigarette butts in ever-growing piles at the back doors of High Street shops. Is it really that difficult to show awareness of the problem and take the necessary steps to stop it?
Secure your waste: On a related note, some supermarkets have their cardboard boxes and other waste in carts that release their contents in a stiff breeze. Making sure that rubbish and recycling can’t escape seems like a no-brainer.
Clean up: This is applicable to every business in the UK: it is technically a requirement to clean within 100 metres of the premises. If this were done on a consistent basis, i.e. morning, midday, and before closing, it would leave many of the UK’s High Streets much cleaner than they are now. More importantly, it would be one step towards changing the UK’s culture of littering. At present, the implicit social norm that is sent to consumers is one of “if there is litter everywhere, then everyone must litter”. Is it any wonder that people just add their rubbish to the pile?
One thing that’s not on this list? Donating money to pay for more litter-picking equipment. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a nice gesture, but using volunteer litter pickers without a plan for behaviour change is not going to solve the problem. Instead it will only continue to send the message that cleaning up rubbish is someone else’s job.
Finally, there is one thing I would like to ask all companies to do it: put the planet before profit. It sounds so straightforward, doesn’t it? So straightforward that I think even the majority of Litter Twitter would agree.