Moonshot: Zero Litter by 2030

In 1962, US president John F. Kennedy launched a bold plan:

We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win.

Those who are familiar with SMART goals will recognise that Kennedy used this framework to set out his vision. It is both specific and measurable (you’ve either made it to the moon or you haven’t); it’s attainable (with a lot of work, but nevertheless possible); it was relevant to the needs of the time (a way to unite Americans and develop the necessary science and engineering skills to win the space race); and it was very much time-based, giving researchers less than ten years to accomplish it.

Although Kennedy didn’t live to see his goal accomplished, in July 1969 Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin set foot on the lunar surface. Job done and mission accomplished.

Today, both solo entrepreneurs and large companies speak about their BHAGs (big hairy audacious goals), something that seems impossible at first glance and will stretch them to the limit. Why can’t we do the same with litter? Right now we are sitting on the edge of a new decade: what is wrong with aiming for zero litter in the UK by 2030? Is it genuinely harder to do this than put a man on the moon?

For the past five years, I have picked up litter, recorded data about litter, written about litter, and run campaigns in an attempt to stop locals from littering. And, to be honest, I can’t say that much has changed in that time. I hate to think that we will be fighting the exact same battle in the next five, ten, twenty years. Can’t we say “enough is enough”? Can’t we make a concerted effort to change the existing “someone else will do it” British culture to one where “we are a nation that cleans up after itself” is as much a part of the national mindset as cups of tea and talking about the weather?

Ending litter requires going beyond the current strategy that, from where I’ve been sitting, seems to only consist of litter picks with the occasional smattering of local campaigns. While I am all in favour of expanding the anti-litter choir, constantly preaching to it alone seems counterproductive and far too slow. Instead, my starter for ten (years) to reduce littering in the UK is as follows:

Clear vision

Rather than an army of volunteers scouring the country to pick up other people’s rubbish, zero litter by 2030 means that cigarette butts and chewing gum are disposed of properly. It means that aluminium cans, plastic bottles, and glass bottles get recycled. Crisp packets, sweet wrappers, and sandwich cartons get binned while on the go. Fast food packaging is taken home rather than disposed en route.

It means that the country has bought into the idea that it is everyone’s responsibility to clean up after themselves, and it’s recognised that our communities, coasts, beauty spots, and waterways look better without litter.

It means that there is an actionable litter strategy, with the actions on said strategy leading to the desired outcome: zero litter by 2030. This means connecting the intervention to the behaviour and asking the questions “How is X going to cause people not to litter?” and “How is Y going to make not littering the better choice?”

If an activity does not lead to the outcome in some way, shape, or form, it should not be part of the strategy. This may require changing the current metrics that are used to measure success. For example, rather than the number of people reporting for a litter pick, we must be looking for a decrease in litter year on year.

Education

I don’t have children, but even I know that you can’t tell them something once and expect that to be the end of it. That’s not how learning works. Instead, a constant and consistent message needs to be drummed into the minds of the next generation: each of us is responsible for cleaning up after ourselves and for reducing our wasteline.

A one-and-done campaign in schools isn’t enough to instil the desired behaviour, nor is a one-size-fits-all approach. What motivates primary school children is going to be different than what impacts the behaviour of adolescents. Ensuring that there is a plan in place to get parents involved is just as vital because, in reality, it is the country as a whole that needs to be educated.

Tackle the reasons for litter

One of the problems with littering is that there are many reasons that people engage in such behaviour, and it often depends on circumstances and particular situations. Someone who wouldn’t think to litter on a High Street will leave their rubbish behind at a festival because they see others doing it. Others see nothing wrong with leaving their coffee cup on a bench if a bin isn’t in sight because “it’s someone’s job to clean up”; they also don’t see this behaviour as littering.

Whichever interventions are used, they need to consider how to address these specific points in order to better shift entrenched attitudes. We also need to …

Stop sending mixed messages 

Regardless of the reason someone litters at a specific moment in time, the UK needs to be very clear about the how to dispose of rubbish. The human brain likes certainty but, at present, our waste system is anything but certain. That each local authority has a different recycling scheme is a big problem in the fight against waste in general. Added to this is that rubbish is handled differently in different locations: on buses and trains, in cinemas and stadiums, at parades, festivals, and celebrations, there is an expectation that someone will be around to pick up. Is it any wonder that this habit of just leaving things behind has become so ingrained in the country?

Furthermore, damaged, dirty, and overflowing bins send the message that it really doesn’t matter to a council what people do with their rubbish. Lack of a binfrastructure in some areas undermines the Keep It, Bin It message. Litter, fly-tipping, and waste in general have to be taken seriously as a problem if there is any hope of putting an end to it.

Unified campaigns

The advertising done by big brands tends to be segmented by audience: the ad intended to reach a young male in the 18-24 year-old age bracket is going to look different to the one aimed at a woman aged 50-59. But there is often a single unifying slogan to give the brand its identity: just do it, every little bit helps, simples.

Right now, each campaign launched by each litter-picking group, local authority, or county council has its own message. There is no unified, national voice.* People may grumble about Network Rails’ “See It, Say It, Sorted” safety campaign, but they can at least remember it. Why not something similar that makes it crystal clear what the correct behaviour is when it comes to rubbish?

Litter doesn’t like to roam
Use a bin or take it home

Ask for help

Solving the problem of litter is not something the UK should be doing in isolation. Why can we not look to how other countries have managed the issue: what behaviour change interventions have been shown to be effective through controlled trials? What helps maintain a litter-free environment?

An understanding of human nature and psychology can also come in handy. In the UK itself, there is the Behavioural Insight Team (a.k.a. the Nudge Unit) and the National Social Marketing Centre. Both of these have behaviour change at their heart and getting to the core of how to encourage people not to litter is what’s needed. Keep Britain Tidy itself has the Centre for Social Innovation.

My background is in behaviour change research, so this is a topic near and dear to my own heart. Indeed, from my own research I know that convenience tends to be an underlying motivation for behaviour. Want to make sure you go for a run in the morning? Have your running shoes next to the bed so you don’t even have to think about putting them on. In the same way, we need to look at how we make not littering easier and more desirable than littering.

I also work with academics and students on a regular basis: how can we use our incredible higher education system to carry out innovative research on all aspects of littering behaviour and waste, from the psychological aspects that drive anti-social behaviour to the latest in computer vision and AI to catch litterers in action? Let us tap into the views of both experts and outsiders to approach the problem.

Joined up thinking

Another of the many problems with litter is that there are so many aspects to it—individual mindsets, cultural attitudes, binfrastructure—and, in the UK at least, so many different agencies responsible for looking after their own sliver of the problem. From assorted government policies to Highways England to local authorities, this lets a lot fall between the cracks. Trying to figure out who was responsible for what in Chippenham alone provided an education in government bureaucracy. This isn’t even mentioning shops—which are supposed to keep the area within 100 m of their premises tidy—and enforcement agencies.

I hate to bust out the corporate jargon, but if there was ever a time for KPIs (key performance indicators), milestones, and deliverables, this is it. We need to break down the silos between agencies and get away from toothless strategies and plans. Instead, there needs to be clear targets, clear ways of measuring success, and clear ways of achieving the desired outcome.  

Business involvement

Large companies and small businesses can each play a role in keeping Britain litter-free. Whether that means using the power of marketing to reach their customers or redesigning packaging to produce fewer pieces of litter (and making the packaging easier to recycle), companies must look beyond short-term profit to consider the long-term impact of their products.

Enforcement

I would love to live in a society where positive reinforcement was the overriding motivational factor, where the carrot was more powerful than the stick. Yet, at present, I can’t see how we can make not littering the easy and obvious choice without having consequences for littering itself.

Sensible enforcement of fines or a sensible community payback scheme are one way to allow this to happen. The use of the word “sensible” twice is deliberate. Too often enforcement of littering fines only occurs where there are conflicts of interest: the agency issuing said fines gets a cut of every ticket. Such a system is ripe for abuse. But ask any litter-picking group to point to areas that are regularly littered: it shouldn’t be difficult to issue fines for genuine anti-social behaviour.

Regarding community payback, I am probably going against the grain when I say that I think those caught littering should not be made to pick up litter. The problem with this? It continues to send the message that it’s someone else’s job to clean up. Instead, I would prefer to see those caught littering do something positive for the community—plant flowers, paint a park bench—in an attempt to instil pride rather than be punitive.

Be willing to do things differently

There is an oft-cited quote that “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result” (although the quote is often attributed to Einstein, its origins appear lost in the mists of time). Yet I feel that this tends to be the current situation when it comes to litter in the UK. The only solutions I’ve heard proposed by politicians in my local area are 1) more litter picks, and 2) school poster contests.

But there are so many innovative people out there trying to make a difference and develop new tools for the anti-litter arsenal. Why can’t they be trialled at scale to better fight the flood of rubbish on our streets?

  • Deposit Return Scheme: If only one thing is done to tackle litter in the UK, this should be it. Approximately half of the waste we’ve recorded over the past five years is either a recyclable aluminium can, plastic bottle, or glass bottle. Giving rubbish a value is one of those carrots that can help encourage people not to litter … and at the very least it means that those who pick up rubbish get rewarded for their efforts.

  • Bin Strap: This common-sense invention keeps the lids on bins. This prevents accidental litter during storms and keeps rubbish in its place.

  • Micro Bins and Mini Bins: These inventions from Zilch are little in name only: small bins that can be easily mounted on existing street furniture that help establish a new norm—litter goes in a bin.

  • Ballot Bins: Anti-waste initiative Hubbub developed these brightly coloured cigarette bins that are a fun way to make the point that butts should be binned.

  • Dog DNA: This seems to be a no-brainer to tackle dog fouling and its relative, dog poo bags that are left to decorate trees and hedges. All dogs are required to be microchipped, and it seems sensible to make DNA testing part of this, with the irresponsible owner footing the bill for the test.

  • Open Litter Map: I’ve long argued that data is a vital component in the fight against litter (specifically here, and here, and here). However, the power doesn’t reside in the data itself, but in what happens next: how the data is used to bring about behaviour change. Knowing what is being littered, where it’s (most likely) being purchased, and where it eventually ends up allows solutions to be developed that target the cause, not just the symptom.

On that note, we need a willingness to tackle the problem itself, not just mitigate it. We need to look beyond the photo ops and positive PR of litter picks. We need to shake off the false-consensus bias—the belief that others think and behave more or less the same way we do—in order to find out-of-the-box solutions.

I recently read Matthew Syed’s excellent book Rebel Ideas, which examines the power of diverse thinking. It impressed upon me the necessity of breaking free of information bubbles and echo chambers, of being willing to examine all aspects of the problem space, and of asking different questions. We can only do this if we put aside our preconceived notions.

Be brave enough to fail

Not everything that is tried in the battle against litter—or any problem—is going to work the first time. Or, potentially, at all. But not doing anything until “the perfect anti-litter programme” is developed is like waiting to catch a unicorn. Instead, we have to be willing to try different things to determine what is effective at delivering the aim (convincing 100% of UK residents to dispose of their rubbish properly), iterate on what has potential, and ditch what doesn’t.

Some may read this and think that the UK has so many other problems facing it right now—homelessness, poverty, inequality, declining biodiversity, poor air quality, an overstretched NHS—that litter is the least of our worries. And that is exactly why I argue that a BHAG—zero litter by 2030—is needed. If the oft-quoted statistic of nearly one billion pounds a year being spent cleaning up rubbish is even somewhat accurate, then that is a lot of money that could go to other things.

Beyond money, there’s also time and energy. If I’ve learned anything in the past five years, it’s that litter pickers are a passionate lot, caring deeply about the environment and their communities. Think about what volunteers could spend their time doing if they weren’t picking litter or running clean ups: planting trees or flowers, building bird boxes or creating homes for hedgehogs, launching repair cafés or teaching others to make do and mend.

So, I hope I speak for all volunteer litter pickers when I say “Please, put us out of business.” Let’s be smart, strategic, and audacious: let’s have zero litter in the UK by 2030. After all …

Please note I do not consider the Keep It, Bin It campaign as achieving a unified, national voice, at least not yet; I have only seen it twice over the course of a year and I’m fairly convinced I only noticed it because I am hyper-aware of anti-litter messaging.