Putting Litter First: February


It’s a fancy word in psychology for what makes something stand out. There are a number of different aspects that can make something noteworthy to an observer, from its colour and design to the message and its emotional resonance. Timing is also a key part of the equation: if you’re in the mood to buy a new widget and an ad for one pops up while you’re scrolling through Facebook, you’re likely to stop and pay attention.* It’s salient to you. If you weren’t looking for a widget, then you might not have noticed it. Likewise, what’s salient to me may not be to you (and vice versa).

This is a topic I’ve touched upon previously when it comes to advertising. A teacher with a stack of marking to do over the weekend is likely to zero in on Redbull’s “Got an Everest of exams to grade?” billboard. The athlete looking to push themselves a little further may notice the “One can and you can” slogan. To make sure the salience really hits home, this latter ad is even done with a male and female protagonist so viewers can see themselves in the poster.

Marketing from big brands is very, very good at finding what’s salient to their target market, then pushing that message again and again. When it comes to litter, this is something we must get better at: there’s no point creating an anti-litter poster using language or imagery that those who are more likely to litter won’t respond to.

Which brings me to February’s Putting Litter First topic: who do you know who works at a supermarket or convenience store?

What do these places have in common?

They are usually the last opportunity to reach people before the packaging they bought—the sandwich container, the aluminium can, the crisp packet, the cigarette carton—turns into waste. Once a piece of packaging is no longer needed for its intended purpose—once it loses salience—it has the potential to become litter. What is stopping shops from having an anti-litter message front and centre in coolers where ready meals are displayed, on cigarette kiosks, and points of sale? Reminding someone of the correct behaviour immediately before they have the chance to make the wrong decision seems to be something worth trying.

Beyond being salient locations, there are two further reasons these are prime areas to target when it comes to litter. First, supermarkets in particular have a tendency to cause unintentional litter by having unsecured recycling containers or skips. Ensuring that a system is developed and followed when bad weather is forecast can prevent cardboard and plastic waste from being strewn in every direction.

Second, what process is in place to ensure that the car park and wider property is kept clean on a daily basis? I’m sure everyone reading this can think of a local supermarket car park where litter lurks under every bush and discarded rubbish is the rule, not the exception. Beyond sheer aesthetics, the problem with this picture is that it reinforces the wrong social norm. Rather than “my rubbish, my responsibility”, it becomes “if there is litter everywhere, then everyone must litter.”

The goal behind the Putting Litter First series is to encourage people to find the open doors: who can they talk to about litter in their community to better understand what’s possible and what the obstacles might be? Because many things that seem no-brainers to those of us in the trenches may actually be challenging to implement for genuine reasons we cannot see. By fully understanding the situation on the ground, we can better explore the obstacles and find ways around them.

But it’s also possible that certain things haven’t been tried because they’ve never been considered before. If your primary job is to sell people groceries or provide a quick bite for someone’s lunch, it’s unlikely that you’re thinking about what happens next. However, everything is connected when it comes to changing behaviour: education, the right messaging, the right location, the right time. Starting at the very beginning of the process in which packaging is turned into rubbish seems like an excellent first step.

True story: A friend had previously recommended Turtle Doves fingerless gloves, but I didn’t pay much attention at the time. However, a few months ago I was browsing Facebook and had very cold hands when a Turtle Doves ad popped up. I now own a pair.


The year-long series Putting Litter First (so we can see the end of it!) is about trying to find a middle ground when it comes stopping litter in our communities. Often, it seems like there’s a false choice presented: those who are working to stop litter can either run a litter pick or they can lobby government for higher fines or for programmes like the Deposit Return Scheme.

The problem with this dichotomy is that most of us are already doing the first bit. We’ve been picking up litter from Chippenham for six years without a noticeable decrease in the amount of rubbish found. On the other hand, waiting for the government to get its act together with higher fines, sensible enforcement, and a proper Deposit Return Scheme feels like an exercise in futility. We can (and we should) campaign for these changes, but, at the same time, we must recognise that the outcome is outside of our control.

Instead, I think there are things that can be done at the community level if enough people are willing to step forward to help make it happen. A big part of this involves making sure that the right people are aware of what tools are available and not re-inventing the wheel. Interested in learning more? Sign up to have the latest Putting Litter First blog post delivered to you on the first of every month.

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