Too many questions, not enough answers?

Any anti-litter organisation or group should have an implicit aim of putting itself out of business: if it has done its job well, its services should no longer be needed. This means getting to the heart of the problem: stopping people from littering in the first place. Not cleaning up after them year after year ad infinitum, but changing the attitude and behaviour of an entire culture. 

Does this sound too difficult?

It was a challenge that Dan Syrek accepted in Texas. He started by looking at the demographics: young men aged 18-35 were the typical litterers, and, in this case, they liked country music and sports, and they had a dislike of authority. He nicknamed this group “Bubbas”, and he recognised that he had to find a message that would resonate with them.

The problem? The usual anti-litter messaging relies on emotions such as guilt and shame, or tugging on the heartstrings with pictures of cuddly animals. It was, according to Syrek, preaching to the choir: it would only be effective on those who were unlikely to litter anyway. The Bubbas weren’t moved by such messages; indeed, some didn’t even recognise that their behaviour was littering.

As a result, appealing to self-interest was out: the Bubbas gained nothing by not littering. And fines were unlikely to have an effect because they would be coming from the very authorities the Bubbas distrusted.  

Instead, Syrek’s solution was ingenious: advertisements featuring athletes and celebrities who were known for being Texan. Coupled with the tagline “Don’t mess with Texas” it sent the message that Texans don’t litter. Rather than reprimanding the Bubbas, it tapped into the idea that people like them didn’t litter. The results? Within the first five years of the campaign, roadside litter was reduced by 72%.

All of this is to say that it is possible to change behaviour. But how do we translate this to the UK? Who are our Bubbas, what do they like and dislike, and how do we reach them? How do we address the two barmy attitudes that contribute to the problem: litter makes a job for someone and I pay my council tax (unspoken: therefore I pay for my litter to be picked up so it’s okay for me to litter)? How do we break the “monkey see, monkey do” habit: someone sees litter and adds their rubbish to it?

I don’t have an answer to these questions, at least not yet.  But from a practical standpoint, there have been no national campaigns or slogans that I can recall during the fifteen years I’ve lived in the UK. There is no clear cultural message around litter. Correction: based on what is seen in our communities, along our motorways, and on our beaches, the message that appears to be coming across loud and clear is that littering is perfectly acceptable—after all, somebody else will clean it up.

The information about the “Don’t mess with Texas” campaign has been adapted from Chip and Dan Heath’s excellent book, Ideas that Stick.

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