Despite the lockdowns of 2020, I found myself talking rubbish to people from across the UK. Admittedly all of these chats were over Zoom or telephone, but it was fascinating to speak with others who were just as obsessed passionate about cleaning up the UK as I am. Often our conversation circled around that ever-popular question: “Why do people litter?”
These discussions encouraged me to expand on my earlier posts (here + here) with aspects that I believe are often overlooked about this emotive topic. In part, I think these subjects aren’t discussed because they’re painful: these are big cans of worms that we are nowhere close to solving as a society and, quite frankly, we don’t necessarily want to think about them. They are well beyond our ability to control or influence: they cannot be solved with a litter pick or clever campaign. Even fines—often touted as a panacea*—are unlikely to work in some of these situations. Instead, they illustrate how litter and waste management can highlight larger problems within society.
My understanding is that Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs has, to some extent, fallen out of favour in psychology, but I still think it’s a useful way to consider motivation. If the bottom of the pyramid isn’t being met, it can then be difficult for people to focus on the higher aspects.
Some of the litter we find in Chippenham is the result of those who are sleeping rough. They wouldn’t be able to pay any fine nor do they have any reason not to litter. From a Maslow’s hierarchy perspective, their concerns are for the basics—food, shelter—and rubbish disposal does not necessarily feature high on their list of priorities.
There is often a lot of anger about litter and overflowing bins, and the fact that people just don’t take rubbish home with them … but we seem to forget that not everyone has a home to take packaging waste to. Of all the potential reasons for littering, this is perhaps the most difficult to tackle.
A significant amount of littered products are things that could be considered the result of addiction, ranging from the legal (alcohol, caffeine, and cigarettes) to the slightly less so: pot (so many tiny bags!), silver whip-its or nitrous oxide canisters, pills, and syringes. I imagine that when someone is feeding an addiction, thoughts about how to dispose of the remains of it—and any potential fines for littering—are far from their mind. After all, in some cases they are already doing something illegal. In for a penny, in for a pound?
LACK OF EMPATHY & FORESIGHT
This is a generalisation, but I would guess that many people who litter are caught in a very me-centric mindset: I’m done with this, I don’t want to carry it, I don’t want to get dirty (#8), etc. You can see this mindset all the time with toddlers, who either leave something in the middle of the floor when they’re done with it or hand it to the nearest adult!
Meanwhile, those who pick up litter tend to be those who think of other people. They can see the big picture or the cause and effect: the pet or small child getting cut on broken glass, the plastic bottle chucked in a river that goes to the ocean, the unnecessary expense of cleaning it all up. Encouraging this shift in perspective from “How does this affect me?” to “How does this impact others? My community? The environment?” is a challenge, especially when people have concerns that are in Maslow’s basement (food, shelter, etc.).
DISENGAGEMENT & DISEMPOWERMENT
Just as there is no one-size-fits-all solution to littering, there should be no one-size-fits-all education system … but there is. I can’t imagine a better way of turning children off learning than the standard system that has a tendency to crush curiosity and personality, and which has a very narrow definition of success. Couple this with a poor home life, and it’s probably no surprise that you get groups of teens and young adults hanging out in parks or green spaces with nothing to do but eat, drink, and/or get high, or driving around with nothing to do but eat, drink, and/or get high. They don’t see any alternatives.
A friend has a theory that the group that is most likely to litter (young adult males) would have had different outlets for their energy in the past, whether tracking down a mammoth, farming, learning a trade from a young age as an apprentice, working in a factory, or going off to war. Now, they have … sport? If they can afford to get involved. If they have the encouragement to do it. If they even have an interest in it (there are no one-size-fits-all hobbies either).
This isn’t saying that we should bring back child labour, but it is about recognising what this adds up to. If you don’t think you can make a positive difference in the world, you are unlikely to believe you can make a negative one. If you can’t see the big picture or have the ability to make long-term plans (#18), then you don’t see the impact of making one poor choice after another. In fact, you don’t see yourself as particularly having choices.
THE CLASS SYSTEM
The anthropologist Kate Fox wrote an excellent book called Watching the English where she turned her academic training to examine the society and culture she belongs to. As someone originally from a different culture myself, I found it fascinating to see what she chose to highlight. In particular, it was eye-opening to me that the class system was still alive and well in language (tea or dinner? settee or sofa? serviette or napkin?) and behaviour.
Since then, I’ve wondered if this idea that some people are born to be binmen or cleaners (#6) is a holdover from a time when there were rigid social distinctions. You did what your forefathers did, no questions asked, with limited upward mobility. It’s not quite like the Dalits of India, but it feels like a kernel of this old belief system survives: people seem to think that someone will always be around to pick up after them because that’s literally what another person’s role in life was … so there’s no problem with tossing a crisp packet because it makes street cleaners feel wanted.
Illogical? Perhaps. But it seems that this may contribute to the ubiquitous idea that “littering makes a job for someone”, an underlying attitude that is hard to shake, but which must be addressed if we are to clean up the UK.
Watching the English also highlights English eccentricity as part of the national culture, and I’ve been mulling this over because I think it might also explain littering to some extent. Although eccentricity is often connected to the upper classes (who can afford to be very eccentric!), I would define modern English eccentricity as “You turn a blind eye when I do something unusual, and I’ll look the other way when you do likewise.”
In some ways, I think this is what contributes to the stereotype of the English as being seen as less friendly than other cultures; in reality, it’s letting people get on with their own business and not interfering. In certain circumstances, I think this has morphed into “I can do what I like”. A feeling of entitlement has replaced traditional eccentricity.
It’s the only thing I can think of to explain behaviour I’ve seen since the pandemic started where some people make no attempt to socially distance: they know that it’s unlikely anyone will call them out on it. Ditto littering: society has turned a blind eye to it for so long, that those who do litter know it’s unlikely their behaviour will be mentioned.
This is described as a “knee-jerk negative reaction to being told what to do”. It occurs when a person feels that someone or something is taking away their choices.
It may seem silly to think that asking someone to put rubbish in a bin causes such a strong negative reaction—“You’re not the boss of me!” seems more appropriate for a primary school playground than associated with the hundreds of bottles and cans of alcohol we regularly find. But, when coupled with something like reason #19, it indicates that some people are trying to exercise any perceived choice … even if their decision is objectively the wrong one.
This was, in part, the reason that the Don’t Mess with Texas campaign was so successful. Researcher Dan Syrek discovered that the group of people most likely to litter—young adult males he nicknamed “Bubbas”—had a distrust and dislike of authority. Traditional messaging activated their reactance because it was seen as coming from authority. As a result, it was necessary to find a different way to appeal to the Bubbas; in this case, it was relying on their pride at being Texan.
RATIONALISAION OR JUSTIFICATION
We all do this to some extent in different areas of our lives.
We have an early morning meeting scheduled but tell ourselves that one more game on our phone, one more scroll through Twitter, or one more show on Netflix won’t hurt.
We want to lose weight but don’t see a problem with just one packet of crisps, one slice of cake, or one fizzy drink.
With rubbish, some of the reasons listed are used to justify littering behaviour, with an underlying attitude of “No one will notice.”; “It doesn’t hurt anyone.”; “There are bigger problems to worry about.”
It is challenging to break through these mental gymnastics.
This is not a complete list, so please don’t be surprised if this turns into a trilogy at some point. Indeed, I’m not sure if it’s actually possible to identify every reason for littering, and there will obviously be overlap among these different points. Nor are these reasons meant to be seen as excuses that justify littering. Rather, they help illustrate the complexity of the issue we’re up against.
On that note, it is worthwhile considering Zero Waste Scotland’s description of “littering incidents”. Rather than view people as litterers or non-litterers, this research indicates that littering comes down to context. Someone who wouldn’t dream of littering along the High Street will leave behind rubbish at a festival or park because they’ve seen others do it first: this is social norms in action (#4-5).
If this is the case, why have I spilled well over 5000 words across multiple blog posts to describe potential reasons for littering?
In part, knowing what is being littered can help us design interventions. Smoking paraphernalia is a commonly found category when litter picking, so perhaps better signs (or any signs) at cigarette kiosks that remind people about their responsibility would be one potential solution. Maybe coupled with Hubbub’s ballot bins at betting shops, pubs, and hospitals?**
In the same way, understanding the mechanisms behind why people litter can potentially help re-shape the UK’s culture to one where cleanliness matters and reset the “someone else’ll do it” mindset. For those who wholeheartedly subscribe to the belief that “litter makes a job for someone”, perhaps a steady stream of “There’s no such thing as good litter” messages will help.
Or for those who think it is their right to litter because they pay their council tax, then perhaps this is another potential avenue for an intervention. For example, could a simple notice be included with council tax bills? Perhaps a gentle reminder is needed: “We would love to spend your Council Tax on , but the high levels of litter in cost £XXXXX. Please help us reduce this by taking your rubbish home.”
There are probably as many potential interventions as there are reasons for littering. Yet there are some actions that should be focused on first because they can help us cover the most ground. In particular, we need to eliminate any of the shades of grey when it comes to waste management. Littering—and fly-tipping and dog-fouling—are unacceptable. Full stop.
The government gets a lot of flak for its fondness for three-part slogans (“Hands, Face, Space” anyone?), and Network Rail’s “See it, say it, sorted” has been known to lead to high levels of annoyance. However, there’s a reason this form of messaging is used: it’s clear, it’s memorable, and it’s actionable. See what I did there?
Yet clear, easily digestible messaging is completely missing from the conversation surrounding litter. As each local authority is responsible for its own patch, there is no unified message or easy-to-remember slogan. Those of us who desire a litter-free UK may all be singing from the same hymn sheet … but the words we’re using are all very different.
So, what should those words be?
Honestly, I have no idea. Using my background in behaviour change, I’ve played around with a few ideas over the past year or two:
These try to capitalise on language that is known to encourage people to change their actions:
- Positive statements describing the desired behaviour—use a bin, take rubbish home—are more effective than a negative command, so “Don’t litter” is out. This also helps avoid the ambiguity in reason #1.
- The importance of showcasing “people like me”: this was found to be a key component of the successful Don’t Mess with Texas campaign. The big question: who are the British Bubbas?
- In a similar manner, people don’t like to be seen as standing out from a crowd in a negative way—they want to be seen as normal. Harnessing positive peer pressure to show that more people are doing the desired behaviour can lead to changes to fit in with the new social norm.
- If it rhymes, it must be true … or, at the very least, memorable.
… but, ultimately, I think I’m too close to the topic to have an unbiased opinion. Do you have any thoughts about how to summarise the points below? Please let me know!
- Litter must be taken home or put in a bin.
- If a bin is full, take it home or find another bin.
- Dog fouling and fly-tipping are likewise frowned upon.
I’ll be writing more about potential solutions in a new series called “Putting litter first … so we can see the last of it”. This has emerged from the conversations I’ve had over the past year, and it seeks to share what we can do within our communities to exercise our control and expand our influence.
Please sign up to have these ideas delivered directly to your inbox on the first of every month. Yes, the first one will be on April Fools Day, but there’s no fooling this year – it’s time we get serious about litter in our communities.
I thought I could no longer be surprised when it came to litter, but I’ve had several people tell me over the past year that they are waging a battle with their local hospitals because the “smokers’ corner” tends to be heaving with thousands of cigarette butts. A well-managed ballot bin seems to be the perfect solution, with an emphasis on “well-managed”.