Why People Litter

[ See Why People Litter: An Addendum ]

“I just don’t understand why people litter! It makes no sense!” 

These words, or their slightly stronger relatives, are probably the most common things people say to me when I’m at a community clean up or wearing my Off the Ground hat. 

And unfortunately this defeatist attitude—there’s just no way of understanding why people litter—is part of the problem. 

Littering may not make sense to those who don’t litter, but it is perfectly logical to someone who does. Human behaviour is such that they wouldn’t do it otherwise. After all, how many times have you heard someone say (or said these words yourself): “Well, it made sense to me at the time …”

Indeed, previous research into the subject underscores that rather than looking at the world as composed of two types of people—those who never litter and those who always do—it is best to think of “littering incidents“: situations where people choose to litter based on context rather than demographics. Until we recognise that there are a myriad of reasons and contexts—and no one-size-fits-all solution—then we cannot take the necessary steps towards actually stopping the problem. Instead, we will continue to engage in litter pick after litter pick with no end in sight.

Over the past four years I have written the Off the Ground blog and helped remove nearly 400 bags of rubbish and over 10,000 items of recyclables from the streets of my community. This has given me a lot of time to think about the potential reasons for littering, and I have assembled all of these into this handy-dandy summary.

But first a thought exercise.

Imagine for a moment that you look down on your shirt and see a crumb from your lunch, a loose thread or strand of hair, or perhaps a bit of fluff from the tumble dryer. What is your reaction?

If you’re like most people, myself included, you brush the offending bit of detritus onto the floor without a second thought. The difference between this and littering? Simply a matter of scale. Although this list is in no particular order, it brings me quite nicely to the first reason people litter:

  • They don’t recognise their behaviour as littering: Earlier research has shown that different age groups have different definitions of litter. If your mental model of littering is a picture of someone maliciously throwing an item to the ground, and you carefully place your rubbish on a bench or a wall, then it’s not littering. I can almost guarantee that a businessman I spotted at Chippenham railway station behaving in exactly this way in front of his co-workers didn’t see his actions in a negative light … even if the results are exactly the same. Or look at cigarette butts: these are the number one littered item in the world because the vast majority of smokers think it’s just a bit of paper, not plastic that can take up to 10 years to degrade (leaching out harmful chemicals while doing so). Keep Britain Tidy is running a campaign to address this idea of “careful littering” … but will people identify their own behaviour and change it?

  • Ease and convenience: When it comes down to it, the action of not littering—i.e. finding and using a bin or carrying a piece of rubbish home—takes far more time and effort than littering. Until littering is made more difficult, whether with social consequences, fines, or some type of other “friction”, it will continue to be the easy choice. In speaking with a teenager at an Off the Ground clean up, I asked why people his age littered. His response: “They want to get on with their lives as quickly as possible.” How do we enable not littering to fulfill this goal?

  • Habit: According to research, nearly 40% of what we do each day boils down to habit, with the aforementioned discarding of cigarette butts just one example of this in action. Charles Duhigg’s excellent book The Power of Habit describes habit loops as being formed from a cue, a routine, and a reward, and I see littering as being part of the “rubbish disposal” habit. Perhaps a person starts to use the time at a red light (cue) to clean out their car (routine) because it is then one less thing they have to do when they get home (reward). Each time someone litters, the habit is reinforced just a little bit more and the litterer is desensitised to what they are actually doing. When coupled with one or more of these other reasons, it builds a powerful feedback loop that can be hard to break.

  • Norms: Beyond individual habits, there are social and cultural norms at play in every society. This is why in many countries you shake hands, in some you bow, and in others you kiss cheeks when greeting one another. In the UK, if you are looking for a clue about how to dispose of your rubbish, you don’t have to look far: litter is strewn along motorways, fly-tipped at laybys, and discarded along the footpaths and streets of our communities. It lines our rivers, is left on our beaches, and dropped in our beauty spots. Clearly, the way to get rid of your rubbish is simply to add it to the existing pile.

  • Bad examples: That last sentence up there was obviously a rubbish joke. Mostly. But the serious side of this is that some people are never taught the proper behaviour. This may be witnessing a parent or sibling litter while growing up. It may be seeing friends do it as an adolescent (and dealing with the resultant peer pressure of wanting to fit in). But if you have not firmly internalised and adopted the value of not littering, then you do not see what the problem is. This behaviour then reinforces that of others by setting a new social norm: littering is okay. After all, if litter is seen everywhere, then everyone must litter.
  • Littering makes a job for some / it is someone else’s job: These evil twins pop up far more often than the pair in The Shining. I have to admit that I never would have thought of these on my own because of their sheer ridiculousness, but David Sedaris mentioned it during the parliamentary litter inquiry in 2015. I filed it away as an American author exaggerating things; we tend to be fond of hyperbole. But just a few months later I saw someone make a comment online to this effect: they didn’t see what the big deal was, after all, littering made a job for someone. It popped up again and again in various guises: What’s the problem? Those people doing Community Payback will pick it up. The Council will get it. Them, they, someone else.


    This is reinforced in trains, stadiums, theatres, and cinemas, where people regularly leave their rubbish behind with the expectation it will be tidied away. Is it any wonder that this habit then extends to other parts of their life?

  • “I pay my council tax”: A toxic cousin to the twins above is this one that I have seen a few times with regards to fines, and it goes something like this: I pay my council tax, which pays for litter to be picked up, therefore I am already paying for litter collection, ergo it is okay to litter (so don’t you dare fine me!). Until an overwhelming majority of the population accepts that cleaning up litter is a waste of taxpayers’ money and could be better spent on other things—including jobs that involve beautifying our communities rather than trying to keep on top of the rubbish—then this and the twins are difficult mindsets to shift.

  • Cleanliness: This one may seem paradoxical, but I am firmly convinced that some people litter out of a desire to be clean: No bins in sight and no interest in getting crisp crumbs in a pocket? Just shove that crisp packet in the crack of a bench. Almost-but-not-quite empty aluminium can? Just leave it so that someone can pick it up and recycle it.

    This hypothesis was confirmed when chatting with a few acquaintances about litter (talk to me long enough and the conversation will come around to litter). One was a cyclist and he said that members of his cycling club tended to chuck empty energy gel packaging because they didn’t want to deal with the sticky packets (he also pointed to norms: his cycling colleagues would watch professionals toss water bottles and rubbish then see nothing wrong with doing likewise. He has started telling them off for littering). Another person ranted about how much they hated litter and they at least have the decency to feel guilty when dropping sticky sweet wrappers.

  • Hiding something: Related to the idea of cleanliness is the possibility of hiding something from others by leaving it out for everyone to see. Scoffed a McDonald’s on the way and don’t want your family to know about it? It’s very simple to chuck it out a window at a red light or ditch it in a car park. Drinking more than you should? Just leave the empty can or bottle behind. Nothing occurred if there’s no evidence.

  • Packaging design: The difficulty with packaging design is that it is based on what sells, not what is best for the environment. So companies like Lucozade and Pringles can continue to get away with producing containers that are regularly listed as being almost impossible to recycle. Cadbury’s can use easy-tear strips that allow customers to get into the sweets fast … and discard the torn strip even faster. Labels and lids on discarded bottles can easily turn one piece of litter into three or more. A shift to making packaging to be as eco-friendly as possible—both with regards to the material it is made from and the amount of removable parts—could help minimise damage while shaping behaviour.

  • Balloon Releases: The idea that what goes up must come down has escaped so many people and organisations. In these instances, their desire to carry out an annual tradition or remember a loved one trumps common sense and environmental stewardship.

  • Smokers: Not all smokers litter, but a not-insignificant amount of litter falls into the category of smoking paraphernalia: cigarette cartons, tobacco pouches, roll-up paper. All of this is on top of the one trillion cigarette butts that are discarded each year across the globe. It’s easy to imagine someone with the habit of regularly discarding a butt on the ground graduating to tossing a carton or another bit of related rubbish.

  • Drunk: Research has shown that how people behave when drunk is not universal, but rather affected by their cultural norms. This means that each culture behaves differently when drunk, and, as an aside, the same research has shown that people behave this way when they think they’re drunk, even though in reality the drinks they were served were non-alcoholic. But alcohol and litter go hand in hand, at least in Chippenham. Alcohol containers are usually the number one littered recyclable found, and our list currently has 259 different alcoholic brands on it. I can almost guarantee that the last thing a drunk—or even slightly squiffy—reveller is thinking about on a night out is where to recycle their bottle or can.

  • Out of sight is out of mind: Sanitation and waste disposal in general aren’t things that people want to think about. In the developed world, we take it for granted that toilets will carry our bodily waste away from us and the Council will cart our household rubbish and recycling somewhere else. So for someone who makes the decision to litter—in particular those who toss rubbish off bridges or decorate trees and hedges with dog poo bags—this disposal of waste  isn’t necessarily a surprise. It’s out of their sight with very little thought as to what happens next.

  • Because they can: Whether an individual has a strong anti-authoritarian streak and sees littering as giving a two-fingered salute to The Man (“No one tells me what to do!”), or is more strongly motivated by one of the other reasons listed here, it comes down to the fact that there is nothing in place to stop people from littering.

The funny thing is that I can think of far fewer reasons for the reverse of the question: Why don’t people litter? 

  • Good examples: If you had it drilled into your head as a child that littering was not acceptable, and perhaps your parents even took you litter picking, then it is likely that this behaviour will continue through adulthood.

  • Habit: In the situation of someone being raised not to litter, not littering has become the ingrained habit.

  • Recognise the problems litter causes: The problems caused by litter are many: besides the aesthetic issues, litter can kill or injure wildlife, lower property values, and is an unnecessary cost in a local authority’s budget.

  • Pride: If you have pride in where you live, whether that’s at a community level or nationally, you want to do what’s possible to show the area in the best light.

So, what do we do about it?

One of the common ways of trying to change behaviour is by using something called the information-deficit model. The theory goes that if people were just aware of the information that they’re lacking, then they would carry out the desired behaviour. Job done.

There is one little problem with this: it doesn’t really work, at least not on everyone. People know smoking is bad for their health, but they do it anyway. People know they should save for retirement, but they tend to put far less away than they should. People know they should exercise more and eat less junk food, but obesity rates continue to grow.

Again, what do we do about it? I have some thoughts that I’ll share in a future blog post, but here’s a sneak peek:

  • Constant and consistent messaging: Day in, day out, year after year,  a new message has to be communicated to replace the current norms: we are a nation that cleans up after ourselves.

  • Stop preaching to the choir: Most anti-litter campaigns use words and imagery that appeal to those who already don’t litter. Finding what resonates with those who do is imperative.

  • Use all of the tools at our disposal: From Deposit Return Schemes to enforced fines, the toolbox is vast. Why are we using only one—litter picks—to tackle the problem on a regular basis?

[ See Why People Litter: An Addendum ]

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