Meandering Conversations and Littering Motivations

Did you ever have one of those conversations where you’re not sure how you got from the original subject to the topic at hand? That describes a recent discussion with a work colleague in which we went from robotics (our current project) to litter. And once someone brings up litter, it’s hard for me to stop talking!

However we ended up on the topic, he mentioned that he would yell at members of his cycling club when they dropped rubbish, which caused me to ask the billion pound question: Why did he think they littered in the first place? He thought for a moment and then his answer was twofold.  

First, he confirmed a suspicion that I have had for a while: litterers actually want to be clean. For the cyclists, they don’t want to deal with the sticky packets from used energy gel. Second, he pointed to social norms: they see the pros drop rubbish on television. Of course, the broadcast doesn’t show the people who come along afterwards to clean up!

How can these factors be used to reduce littering across the board? Better spill-proof packaging? Celebrities that make a very public stance against litter? Make the point that Bradley Wiggins and Chris Froome have a clean-up crew built into their jobs? I don’t know what the answer is, but I do know that it’s only by digging into things a little deeper—uncovering motivations and finding the pressure points that will tip people from littering to not—that we will be able to start making progress.


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