A comprehensive review of littering behaviour was conducted by Schultz and colleagues in 2011. They observed nearly 10,000 adults and found that 17% of “disposal behaviours” were littering. Cigarettes are our most littered item –an astounding 65% of cigarettes were littered in the study. Which is consistent with the observations of such groups as Clean Up Australia, which reports that butts are the single biggest item collected from sites around the country. And it’s not just the kids that are failing to bin their butts. Although they were the worst offenders, no age groups in this study were more than 50% likely to properly dispose of their cigarettes. As an aside, only 61% of participants in a related study even considered butts to be litter!

There are a number of variables which contribute to higher rates of littering. For a start, we are less likely to litter when in a group, probably due to a perceived sense of social undesirability. Likewise, in crowded situations, people are observed to litter less.

However, the most significant social influencer of littering behaviour seems to be our perception of a norm for littering. Numerous studies have shown that we are more likely to litter in a place where there is already a lot of litter around. Cialdini and others conducted a number of experiments to test this theory, with interesting results.

The studies showed that it was quite easy to manipulate the amount of littering people did by cleaning up – or messing up – a public place. Furthermore, the experimenters found that by not only providing a littered environment, but also employing an actor to walk by and drop rubbish in view of unsuspecting members of the public, they were more likely to elicit similar behaviour.

An already-littered environment is thought to not only provide a social cue that littering is accepted, but also could create the perception that the area needs cleaning up anyway, so a bit more rubbish won’t make much difference.

The other significant influencer on our likelihood to litter is the proximity and convenience of trash receptacles. Where it is easy to dispose of rubbish, we are less likely to litter. In the Schultz et al study, it was not the actual amount of bins, but the convenience of their placement, that made a difference to littering behaviour. In fact, that study showed a littering rate of 12% when a bin was within 20 feet of people, rising to 30% when over 60 feet away.

Given all these findings, it is no wonder cinemas are so often left in a shocking mess when everyone is gone. The perfect combination of anonymity (darkened room), social norms (everyone does it), lack of bins near where the products are consumed (the seats), and the perception that people come through and clean up anyway, means that only a few of us weird people take our rubbish with us.

Understanding and using social norms is likely to be the most effective way of persuading people to responsibly dispose of rubbish. Several studies have shown that commanding people to “not litter” is not as effective as encouraging them to be a responsible citizen.

Carefully targeting demographic groups with messages which are most likely to influence them is an important factor here. The “Don’t Mess With Texas” campaign is famous for recognising that using macho role models is more effective than staid government anti-littering messages, especially in a state known for its distrust of the nanny state – leading to a 29% reduction in highway littering in one year.

Finally, the “cleanup campaigns” found in many communities work on a couple of levels. For a start, having a litter-free environment is likely to reduce the perception that littering is the norm. Secondly, it enrols people in the act of caring for their environment and helps to build awareness and shared responsibility for environmental care. So one way of reducing littering, especially in a specific place, is to go ahead and clean it up – and see what happens.

From:   Awake provides psychology-based tools and services which support organisations and communities to develop a culture of sustainability.  Visit www.awake.com.au for more info