Why People Litter: An Addendum

[ The original blog post can be found here.

I wasn’t expecting to write further on the subject of why people litter so soon, but the Off the Ground Twitter feed has been flooded with pictures of Hyde Park covered in a layer of left-behind rubbish (please note: I have not verified when the photos were taken and a quick Google search showed that Hyde Park regularly gets in this condition). How many reasons for this behaviour have you spotted at play?

  • Culture: Britain does not have a culture of cleaning up after itself. Whether it’s a football stadium or theatre, a train or a bus, there is an expectation that someone else will remove the mess left behind. It doesn’t have to be this way: supporters of the Japanese football team endeared themselves to the world by cleaning up their stadiums during the World Cup. It is culturally engrained in the Japanese psyche that this is what you do; in Britain, it is the exact opposite. Until this national mindset is tackled, scenes like this will continue.

  • It’s someone else’s job to clean up: And this is why I believe Britain has the mindset it does. For far too long, there has been a belief that littering is a good thing because it makes a job for someone (I have seriously heard this expressed both online and in real life). Because this occurred in a park, a few factors were likely at play: 1) research has shown that areas that are known to be cleaned up regularly also get littered more often because the perpetrators know it will be cleaned; and 2) there is an attitude that it is the job of the park employees to clean.

    As an aside, I have heard from staff in my own local parks, and witnessed it in action once or twice, that teenagers will deliberately leave rubbish for employees then hurl abuse at them if it’s not picked up. While this is illustrative of wider anti-social problems, it’s easy to see how this belief—that someone will pick up after you—takes root and grows into adults who can’t be bothered to find a bin or take their rubbish home.

  • Social Norms: In this particular situation, I also think social norms are at play. It wouldn’t take much, just one or two people leaving behind their rubbish, for it to spread to an entire field. There are a few reasons for this.

    First, research has shown that the longer that packaging is left on the ground past its use—an empty aluminium can for example—the more likely it is to be left behind. Basically, the brain has “open loops” (“I have a task to do.”) and seeks to close them (“Task accomplished!”).  Once closed, the loop gets forgotten. You can see this in action yourself by starting a task, then leaving it halfway—if you’re like most people, it will linger in the back of your mind, pestering you to finish it (large DIY project excluded!). The brain likes closure. Returning to our aluminium can (or crisp packet or sandwich carton), once it’s consumed, that loop is closed. If it’s placed on the ground and not needed, it loses relevance to the person who left it.

    Second, in this situation, people may have been unsure of how to dispose of their rubbish. Were bins visible from where they were sitting/standing? Were they usable or were they already overflowing? If you see someone else leaving their rubbish, that sends the message that this is how you dispose of it, and therefore it is okay to leave things behind.

    Without a culture of cleaning up established as the default, coupled with the “it’s someone else’s job” mindset, scenes like what happened at Hyde Park should not be a surprise.

  • Drunk: Always a possibility and almost always the number one contributor to the type of litter we find in Chippenham. A Deposit Return Scheme would help with this because someone will always be sober enough to get money back for the empty cans and bottles.

  • Not recognising their behaviour as littering: Finally, I imagine that the people involved would not connect their actions to causing litter, partially because of the above reasons, and partially because they “left” their rubbish. Or “set” it. Or “placed” it.

Recognising the reasons for the behaviour—and not just demonising people who litter (regardless of how tempting it might be)—is the first step towards stopping it. We can all do our bit as well: don’t litter (or “leave” or “set” or “place” rubbish). Teach our children or the young people in our lives not to litter regardless of social norms or peer pressure (use a bin or take it home—nothing in between). Speak up when we see others littering (a polite “Excuse me, you dropped this” rather than a confrontational “Oi! You there!” would be the best course of action). Cultural change takes time, but it has been done before—look at the decline in smoking rates or the increase in seat belt use—and it is up to us to make a start.

[ The original blog post can be found here.

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