Driven to Distraction

Last week Jon and I ventured into Somerset to spend Easter with his family. This is a familiar route, one we travel on a regular basis, and every time we end up having the same conversation about litter as we travel from our home to theirs. Indeed, you can almost determine your location based on the rubbish spied along the verges.

First there’s the general roadside plastic, McDonald’s products, and other takeaway detritus that snakes its way along the A350. As we get further from Chippenham—and fast food offerings—the type of litter changes to cans, bottles, and wrappers, often chucked from a vehicle at a red light or corner—basically anywhere people may have slowed down for a moment. The countryside is not immune, with rubbish caught in hedgerows and fly-tipped household goods piled in a lay-by or outside a farmer’s gate.

As we make the journey we discuss what causes people to behave this way. We’ve long since moved beyond the standard one-liners (“People are selfish.” … “People are lazy.” … “People are thoughtless”), and instead look at the behaviour itself:

  • Is it because littering has become a social norm? Humans are herd animals and there is a tendency to look to others to see how to behave. While the harmless version of this is glancing at the person next to you to determine which fork to use at a formal dinner, checking to see how others dispose of their rubbish is likely to lead to making the wrong choice. For example, someone who has finished their single-use coffee cup may see one or two already tossed on the grass while they wait at a red light; adding their own to the mix isn’t seen as a problem because it’s already been done by others.
  • Is it because littering is easy? Getting rid of packaging is not the most difficult of tasks: find a bin or take it home to dispose of. Pat yourself on the back, job done! But littering is even easier: chuck it out a car window, leave it behind in a car park, stuff it into a hedge, sit it on a wall. Until littering—or the consequences for it—can be made more difficult than not littering, it’s likely to continue unabated.
  • Is it because littering has no consequences?Following on from the ease with which littering can be accomplished, it is a behaviour that has (almost) zero consequences. Sure, there are fines for it—and it seems like it would be incredibly easy to fine those who litter at red lights (more thoughts about this in a future blog post)—but enforcement is practically non-existent. And social consequences, such as feelings of shame or embarrassment? Unless a major social marketing campaign is produced to change public opinion—think of the scale of the campaigns that surrounded drink driving, smoking, or seat belt use—then they’ll continue to hover around zero as well.
  • Is it because littering is perceived as a victimless crime? Keep Britain Tidy has recently started the “Don’t be a tosser” campaign to highlight the amount of rubbish thrown from vehicles, especially the bottles and cans that end up as death traps to our tiniest wildlife. According to their publicity, three million mice, voles, and shrews are killed each year as a result of litter and, having found a few bottles with drowned mice myself, I can believe it. However, if the RSPCA’s 5000+ calls a year due to wildlife and pets injured by litter fails to make a difference, or the images of wildlife across the globe feeding on a sea of plastic doesn’t convince people to switch to reusable containers, then I’m not sure relying on sympathy for mice is the way forward. The case needs to be made that we all suffer from litter: there is an average of 12% knocked off property values in littered areas, and money spent cleaning up rubbish could be spent on other things (my vote is for the NHS. And fixing potholes).
  • Is it because people have a desire for cleanliness?This may seem paradoxical, but I have a theory that one of the reasons for litter is because people don’t want to deal with the possibility of spilling crisp dust on themselves or have the odour of fast food in their car. Instead they seek to dispose of the offending “dirty” item as quickly as possible. In the same way, those who want to hide what they’re doing—the teenager sneaking alcohol or someone wanting to keep their fast food addiction from their partner—may also litter because it’s the quickest and easiest way to distance themselves from their behaviour.
  • Is it because littering is seen as beneficial? Don’t laugh, but this is an attitude I have come across several times online, with some stating that litter is a good thing because it helps create employment. I just finished reading Dan Ariely’s The (Honest) Truth About Dishonesty, a scientific look at cheating and dishonest behaviour, and this mindset fits perfectly into his description of how people are great at lying—to themselves most of all. How many other excuses might people use to justify littering or make themselves feel better about an anti-social behaviour?
  • Is it because littering has become an ingrained habit?Habits are behaviours or routines that are carried out almost without conscious thought. Imagine getting out of bed first thing in the morning and brushing your teeth: it’s done on auto-pilot. It is estimated that at least 40% of what we do each day is a result of habit, which is great if we have cultivated good ones. However, bad habits abound as well—why should littering be any different? Yet as anyone who has tried to stop biting their nails or cut back on snacking knows, disrupting or changing habits is difficult because it is the default position. How do we snap the nation out of this mindless routine?

How do these musings help? Besides a way for Jon and I to pass the time, they’re a step towards recognising that littering is a complex issue and that a one-size-fits-all solution is not going to work. After all, how well has shouting “Don’t litter!” worked for us in the past? Instead there are a number of strands that need to be brought together in a coherent plan that utilises the latest behavioural research in neuroscience and psychology to bring about lasting change.

  • Cleaning: A littered environment sends the message that littering is okay, so we shouldn’t be surprised when more rubbish is added to an already messy area. To change this, our streets, motorways, and communities must be kept clean. But, as I discuss in my litter strategy, simply holding one litter pick after another is not a solution.  Rather, cleaning must be undertaken with these other aspects in mind to stop litter from being dropped in the first place.
  • Education: Much of our social behaviour is taught, whether at home, at school, or by watching others. How many children mimic what they see their parents do, or repeat the same excuses they hear at home? Education at all age levels, from schools to office buildings, is required if we want to have any hope of reducing packaging waste, increasing recycling rates, and stopping litter.
  • Awareness:  Last year this time we were fighting an uphill battle against single-use plastic. This year? Well, we’re still battling, but there have been a few victorious skirmishes, from the announcement of a national Refill campaign to government inching closer to a deposit return scheme. This difference between this year and last comes down to Blue Planet II: this breath-taking documentary and Sir David Attenborough’s dulcet tones literally brought plastic pollution into the nation’s living rooms. Greater awareness of waste is needed across the board as we can no
    longer afford an out-of-sight-out-of-mind mentality.
  • Interventions: Social marketing is defined as “an approach used to develop activities aimed at changing or maintaining people’s behaviour for the benefit of individuals and society as a whole.” For such activities to be effective, they need to be everywhere, targeted in different ways to different audiences. We cannot rely on the same techniques that worked decades ago to reach a modern audience, and, above all, we need to make sure we’re getting the right message across to the right audience at the right time—before they litter.
  • Fines: One way to make littering more difficult than not littering is by fining those who deliberately drop rubbish or fly tip. However, having fines for littering is pointless if 1) they are not sensibly enforced, or 2) no one knows they exist. Just the threat of a fine may be enough of deterrent to prevent littering in the first place, but without a well-publicised campaign, signs in highly littered areas, and a few enforced payments, then littering fines are just hollow numbers.
  • Deposit return scheme: While fines are a stick, deposit return schemes serve as the carrot. By giving recyclables a price, they are less likely to end up as litter, and those bits that do get tossed are likely to be picked up quickly so their return value can be unlocked. More to the point, the more products that are returned to the manufacturing process through recycling rather than ending up in a landfill, the better off we—and the planet—are.
  • Social stigma: Changing the public perception of littering is vital if we want to have any chance of changes lasting beyond the time span of a poster or advertising campaign. The positive power of peer pressure must be used to send the message that the act of littering is no longer tolerated.
  • Business: Finally, the companies who produce the packaging that ends up as litter need to explicitly address their customers. They know what techniques work to sell them a product; why can’t the same ones be used to encourage them to use a bin? We can no longer continue to preach to the choir with feel-good programmes that only reach those who wouldn’t litter in the first place.

I would never claim that solving the problem of litter is simple or straightforward. But we have so many potential solutions on our doorstep, just waiting to be used. For example, many of these points are already addressed by my “litter bible”, a document produced by Zero Waste Scotland that pulls together much of the existing research. Then there’s the government’s Behavioural Insights Team: if there is any behaviour that needs a bit of insight, it’s littering! Likewise, other developed countries do not have this problem at the same scale. What are they doing right that we seem to be missing? Ultimately, what will it take to get these ideas acted on so that travelling from A to B becomes about enjoying the scenery—not spotting litter?


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