Unfortunately, litter and football seem to go hand in hand instead of hand to bin. It’s a topic I’ve written about before, and you don’t have to look far to see examples of this popping up in the news every time there’s a national championship … or an international one. The mess left behind after the recent Euro2020 games was an example of this in action; the only thing that is mildly surprising is the surprise exhibited by the media after the fact—this behaviour isn’t exactly new.
It doesn’t matter whether it’s a sunny bank holiday weekend, a music festival, or a championship game, but I can practically guarantee that public areas are going to be strewn with cans, bottles, and other rubbish. It’s as predictable as the sun rising in the east and setting in the west. The reason that people litter in these situations may vary, but ultimately it comes down to the lack of a cultural auto-pilot we have in the UK.
Rather than a black-and-white response—litter gets taken home or goes into a bin—we have “littering incidents”, where littering behaviour is based on context. Someone who wouldn’t dream of littering along the High Street will leave their rubbish behind at a festival or in a stadium because they see others doing the same thing (#4 social norms), or they have the mistaken belief that litter is a good thing because it makes a job for someone (#6).
Paradoxically, this behaviour means that there is an enormous opportunity to focus on changing it because you know exactly who is doing the littering and in what context. This is particularly true when it comes to the littering that surrounds football games: why not concentrate on changing the rubbish-disposal behaviour of supporters?
First, it helped establish that the demographic most likely to litter—young men aged 18-35—have a distrust or dislike of authority. A standard “Don’t litter” injunction is seen as being from the hated authority figure and tends to be ignored. Second, it recognised that this demographic responded to different things: images of cute and cuddly animals were unlikely to resonate with them. And finally—this is the clever bit—it capitalised on the powerful idea that “people like me behave in a certain way”: Texans don’t litter; therefore, since I’m a proud Texan, I don’t litter. The result? It decreased roadside litter by 72% during the first five years of the campaign.
When I originally shared this back in 2019, I wasn’t sure how to adapt it to the UK. But I am starting to think that the tribal loyalties of football clubs are the way forward. Imagine if every team in the Premier League, Championship, League One, League Two, and beyond had clear messaging at games that was explicit about the behaviour expected. From loudspeaker announcements and on-field banners to player endorsements and social media buzz, the message is that if you want to support your team, you can do it by taking your rubbish home or binning it. Not leaving it at your seat. Not abandoning it in the car park. Not chucking it from your vehicle on the way home.
We’re not going to turn into a nation like Japan overnight, where supporters bring their own bags and clean the stadium after the game. But could volunteers with rubbish bags in the team colours be stationed where they can be given litter during halftime and at the end of the games? Just that simple step of encouraging people to bring rubbish from their seat to an identifiable disposal area may begin to shift the mindset.
What about local team sports? Could parents encourage their children’s teams to pick up after every practice and game? Could weekend five-a-side teams likewise institute a rota of making sure the pitch gets tidied after each game?
I admit that painting a grand picture like this is easy. Turning it into reality is far more challenging. How would we actually make something like this happen? I don’t have any guaranteed solutions, but I do have plenty of thoughts:
- Networking: What contacts do we have? Does someone in the anti-litter community know someone who works for any of the leagues or teams? A foot in the door to see what’s possible could be enough to see whether this idea has legs.
- Social Media: The power of persistence through Twitter, Facebook, or even letters could be harnessed to see if players or managers were willing to champion the idea or, at the very least, share anti-litter messages with their followers.
- Supporter Clubs: Could fans take on this cause themselves? An anti-litter message coming from inside the team would be incredibly impactful and potentially influence other supporters to change their behaviour. The importance of highlighting that “people like me” behave in a particular way cannot be underestimated.
- Sponsors and Advertisers: Appealing to sponsors and advertisers seems like a potential win-win solution for everyone: they would get positive PR and anti-litter messaging would be broadcast far and wide. The slight problem? Budweiser, Cadbury, and Coca-Cola are official partners, and thus far haven’t appeared willing to directly address their customers regarding littering. Likewise, I imagine that some advertisers would want to distance themselves from the fact their packaging ends up splashed across roadways and communities throughout the country.
Finally, as someone who follows exactly zero athletic events, I imagine that other sports—rugby, cricket, tennis, Formula 1 racing, golf—are ripe for this type of intervention. What is within our control to influence?
The new Premier League season kicks off this month, and my own offering to get the ball rolling is a set of posters and Facebook cover images. I’ll be adding more to this post throughout the month, so please pop by to download and share more widely!