Looking EAST for Anti-Litter Solutions

My summer reading list looks a bit different than usual. I kicked off recently with Black Box Thinking, which explores how failure is actually necessary for innovation … but you must learn from those mistakes if they’re to be of any value.  Also on my list is Nudge, about how small behavioural changes that can lead to big results, and Influence by Robert Cialdini, the grandfather of behavioural science who is well known for running experiments about littering.

However, I am currently in the middle of Inside the Nudge Unit by David Halpern, which details the formation of the government’s Behavioural Insights Team and outlines some of their projects and policies. My interest in how behaviour can be changed using low- and no-cost interventions stems from my time as a post-doctoral research assistant, when I was investigating how technology could be used to encourage people to retrofit their homes to make them more energy efficient. This has shaped my thinking about much of what I suggest for litter, as often the most common ways of approaching problems (more information!!! more details!!! expect people to act in their own best interest!!!) tend to be wrong.

As a researcher, I ventured deep into the weeds of academic literature, but I have found that the books packaged for popular consumption are far more digestible and provide a good overview. There is the caveat that the reporting about some of the studies is not 100% accurate, at least as far as my recollections go, but if you’re looking to better understand why a lot of current approaches don’t work—and see some that do consider giving these books a go.

Returning to Inside the Nudge Unit, I found the mnemonic they suggest—EAST—to be useful when considering how to design interventions.

The E is for EASY. Just like water, people tend to follow the path of least resistance. This was something that came up again and again in my post-doctoral research, so I’m not surprised to see that the Behavioural Insights Team put it first. This means that you have to make the desired behaviour as “frictionless” as possible, or, conversely, if you want someone to avoid doing something, make it harder.  

This is quite difficult for littering because the desired behaviour—using a bin, taking rubbish home to dispose of properly, not littering—is actually the more difficult option. After all, what could be easier than finishing a packet of crisps or bottle of water and leaving it for someone else to deal with? But this is where more bins could play a role … provided that they are done in tandem with some of the other points below.  

The flipside, making littering appear to be the harder option, is also possible. Again, employing other techniques to support this is necessary. Although Halpern refers to fines as a “shove” or “push” rather than a nudge, I still think enforced fines have a role to play. Right now, there is absolutely nothing that adds ”friction” to littering: no social stigma, no threat of a punishment, in short nothing that will make people think twice before tossing their litter.

A is for ATTRACT! or MAKE IT ATTRACTIVE. I think attracting attention to the problem is necessary, but it must be done in a way that gets through to the desired audience. This likely means rethinking the way that anti-litter messages are formulated. I favour using humour, which is why we’ve played around with creating anti-litter images using common memes and Jon has come up with rubbish parody songs. You can imagine an entire ad campaign developed around the “Real men use a bin” tagline … although there are some cautions, as discussed further below.

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To this I would add another A: attitude. I have seen comments again and again online that can be summed up as “What’s the big deal about littering? It makes a job for someone.”  Until this attitude is tackled, until everyone stops passing the responsibility to someone else (“It’s all the Council’s fault!”), then littering will continue to be a problem.

S stands for SOCIAL, and this is where I think there is enormous potential to curb littering. People are hugely influenced by what others think of them. Therefore, littering has to be made socially unacceptable. Keep Britain Tidy recently won an award for their “We’re Watching You” posters, based on research that showed that people are more likely to carry out the desired behaviour if they think they’re being watched. They have also launched a new socially-inspired campaign, using negative words to describe those who litter while driving: “dirty”, “lazy”, “slob”.
Essex tried something similar with a more positive slant, but got slammed for sexism, so the
approach has to be right.

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Regardless of what is done to add a social element to an intervention, I feel that a united front has to be presented so that people see the same message everywhere they turn. This is how taglines work when advertising big brands: Just do it. Every little helps. Should have gone to SpecSavers.

So why not the same for positive anti-littering messages? For example, “Stow it, don’t throw it” to combat rubbish chucked from cars, or “Bought it?  Bin it. Brilliant!”  Simples.

Following on from this, it cannot be expected that a short trial will solve the problem. The message has to be consistent and constant if there is any hope of making a cultural change.

The last letter, T, is for TIMELY. A notice on a bin telling people not to litter may not be the best way to reach them—after all, they’ve probably already left their rubbish behind.  But maybe an eye-catching (attractive) sign when they’re buying the product or leaving the shop could be more effective? Or a message on the pavement of the High Street, pointing them towards the nearest bin? Or ensuring that the message is driven home in schools, from kindergarten to college?

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Teenagers in John Coles Park surrounded by their litter.

This latter aspect is particularly important. So much of what we do or don’t do in life comes down to habits (regarding which, I also recommend Charles Duhigg’s The Power of Habit—it’s a fascinating view about how habits are formed and how you can change them). I firmly believe that littering is the same way, and we must establish good habits early and reinforce them often.

One of the most common “nudge” techniques to combat litter is actually something we have trialled here in Chippenham.  The use of green footprints has been shown to reduce littering by 46% in some areas, and it calls upon most of the elements listed here: it makes it easy to find a bin, it implicitly shows that using a bin is the correct behaviour, and it is hopefully timely enough to capture people’s attention as they walk by.

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Over the coming year I hope we will have the opportunity to try even more of these techniques in Chippenham and, step by step, make the town a cleaner place.

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