Let’s talk about Litter

Written by Emma Lightfoot, Membership Co-ordinator of Ipswich DMO

According to a variety of sources, fly-tipping and littering is a problem that the UK just don’t seem able to solve. Clearing the streets, parks and other public places costs an enormous amount of money each year and always rates high in surveys of residents’ local issues. The additional impact of rubbish on the streets is an increase in species that scavenge; such as rats, foxes and seagulls.

In 2010, the Government published a convention with the message ‘love where you live’ after data showed that littering was not improving. In 2017, we seem no further forward as a country. The National Litter Strategy was published in April but, perhaps unsurprisingly, was lost somewhere in the recent election.

Looking closer to home, Suffolk County Council have the intention of making Suffolk the Greenest County through both environmental strategies and managing waste and recycling. In 2016, Spring Clean Suffolk was combined with the 2016 Clean for the Queen initiative and they also run Tip-Off to tackle fly-tipping.

Ipswich Borough Council provide a Cleaner Ipswich Hotline for dog fouling, graffiti, fly-tipping, abandoned needles, leaves and litter. They also encourage residents to arrange a tidy up on their street and provide a free ‘litter picking’ kit.

At Ipswich Central, we run #itsmystreet with clean up days for local businesses to sweep, polish and tidy their premises every 8-12 weeks, bringing the businesses together and encouraging people to feel proud of where they work.


However, these strategies offer a solution to a problem but are not always targeting the cause (a bit like taking a paracetamol for a persistent headache but not finding out why you are getting the headache).

So, why do people drop their litter?

There are many reasons and lots of individual differences, but here are a few:

  1. Cultural factors: observational learning is a key concept for children (it undermines the statement ‘do as I say, not as I do’) so observing a parent putting their rubbish in the bin, or recycling, means that a child is more likely to mirror that behaviour. Of course, this means that if your family/caregivers drop their litter then you are highly likely to as well. There can also be cultural differences if putting litter in the bin is not a norm in another country.
  2. Age: work by Community Safety Glasgow on litter offences showed that the majority of offenders were male and under the age of 30. (This does not mean that 35 year old women don’t litter but it does give indications as to who strategies should be targeted at initially).
  3. A social or group norm: culturally we encourage respect for social standards so we adjust our behaviour to fit in with a group standard. We are more likely to conform when we admire the group, know that we are being watched or are made to feel insecure. So if is a group norm to throw litter out of the car or drop cigarette butts and chewing gum on the floor, new members to that group are highly likely to repeat the behaviour to feel included. Some people might have a personal norm around not dropping litter but might not behave accordingly if they are not focusing.
  4. Choice: putting litter in a bin costs time and effort. The decision is therefore affected by a few factors such as proximity of the nearest bin, energy expended to walk to the bin and how they feel about the area (they might not drop litter in their own home or garden). Of course, much of this decision-making is made at the subconscious level and can be affected by personal rules, norms, culture and learning.
  5. Perception of the area: Wilson and Kelling introduced the Broken Windows Theory in 1982. The relevance comes when an unloved or abandoned area is seen as lawless with a different set of norms, as they say  “Or consider a pavement. Some litter accumulates. Soon, more litter accumulates. Eventually, people even start leaving bags of refuse from take-out restaurants there or even break into cars”.
  6. Individual preference: for some people, using a public bin that is dirty or not easy to access provides a conflict, making it easier to drop the litter.


And why do people not drop their litter?

Usually the opposite reasoning for everything mentioned above.

So observing our parents using bins and recycling means we are more likely to do so, not becoming part of a group that drops their rubbish, existing in an area that is cared for and has easy access to bins is also associated with not dropping rubbish. As we age we tend to become more likely to care about our local area. For some people, the sense of shame associated with being caught littering is linked to their self-concept which helps them to look for a bin.

So what could we do?

A combination of empowerment, cognitive, social, and technical solutions are often needed to effectively tackle the problem. There are lots of fascinating research papers and ideas, here are just a few:

  1. Bin design – researchers found that messaging on bins can activate a personal norm to use bins. In a Dutch study, using the message ‘This is how it is done here!’ saw litter reduce by 50%. The same researchers also recorded good results using a bin with a mirror above it and the phrase ‘Do you leave your litter lying around?’.
  2. Nudge psychology subtly manipulates choice and decision-making. Using images of eyes above bins so that people feel they are being watched or the use of a cigarette butt ballot bin can reduce littering. There have also been improvements in dog poo on pavements when people have drawn chalk circles around the pile or eyes near (to show they have been noticed). At the very least you are alerting people to the presence and saving their shoes…..
  3. Social shaming and encouragement – the use of a Facebook group or a funny hashtag can be used locally to shame offenders or as an incentives for people who join a litter-picking up day, for example. Hubub have introduced #FFSLDN don’t drop litter in London (where FFS is For Fish’s Sake) or there is #startedabin reflecting how one piece of rubbish leads to more being added.
  4. Starting small – encouraging people through social media to put ‘just one piece of litter in the bin today’ or to  focus on one type of litter, such as chewing gum can help people to develop new habits and has a greater long-term impact.
  5. Legislation – The threat of a fine, or even signs that encourage people not to drop their litter, are often used to encourage a particular norm or rule, however they can act as cues that draw attention to the action (dropping litter) making the act more salient.
  6. Incentives – negative reinforcement through fines, can work but need to be applied, not just threatened. Positive rewards applied immediately, can change habits – if only we could pay people to put litter in the bin. Using fun incentives can change behaviour, but once the incentive stops, so does the behaviour (something to consider if you are going to use a cigarette butt ballot bin).
  7. Keeping areas tidy and looking ‘loved’ reduces littering. When observed, few people drop the first piece but lots will add to litter, even if there is just one piece on the floor.

I was thinking about litter whilst I was in Sicily this summer (as you do). Taormina is a very very busy town that didn’t seem to have a litter problem. I noticed there were groups of bins very close together across the town, with the options of recycling at source. Clearly, this provides easy opportunities for the behaviour we all wish to see more of:


But just to make us all feel better, or like giving up completely, look what I spotted at an amphitheatre:

image 3

Further reading and resources:


Kelling, George; Coles, Catherine, Fixing Broken Windows: Restoring Order and Reducing Crime in Our Communities, ISBN 0-684-83738-2.

Clean Up Britain

Hubub (loads of fun ideas using techniques such as nudge psychology, also behind Neat Streets).

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