Talking Rubbish: Littering & Behaviour Change

Published: 06 January 2015

It's clear we have a litter problem. But is changing individual behaviour the answer?

Daily street cleaning, quickly removing graffiti, and swiftly fixing those broken windows, helped build community pride and changed the way people interacted with the environment around them until new norms were set and became self-sustaining.

This week, MPs on the Commons Communities & Local Government Committee will be talking rubbish…as they grill executives from Wrigley, McDonald’s and the Tobacco Manufacturers’ Association about the litter their industries create.

According to the Independent, managing litter costs the taxpayer £1bn a year, most of which comes out of the budgets of hard-pressed Local Authorities. Keep Britain Tidy estimates that indirect costs may add a further £3bn.

The Committee want to talk with the giants of the chewing gum, fast food and tobacco industries as they would rather like the private sector to foot some of this enormous bill. What the committee may recommend has yet to be determined, but proposals are unlikely to deviate far from an idea considered and rejected by the Welsh Assembly two years ago, which proposed a 5p tax on chewing gum to cover the cost of street cleaning.

Economists call this ‘internalising the externality’, that is, shifting a cost being carried by an external party back on to whoever is creating it. But is shifting the cost of managing litter onto Wrigley and McDonald’s actually internalising it?

Pointing the finger at big business is the easiest solution for government, but tax is a very blunt instrument for changing behaviour. Fast food restaurants, tobacco manufacturers and chewing gum makers might be supplying the products and packaging, but they aren’t the ones dropping the litter – individual people are.

And influencing individual behaviour is no simple task. In the 1980s, James Q Wilson and George Kelling devised their ‘broken windows’ theory, which suggested that people use something called social signalling to determine social norms and structure their behaviour accordingly. Essentially, if a building has a few broken windows already, we are more likely to think it’s OK to break more. The same goes for litter on a pavement, if we see dropped litter, we’re more likely to drop our own.

How can we deal with this and keep our public areas tidy? One approach is to use strong legal controls, coupled with even stronger enforcement – of the sort seen in Singapore. But what works (at least on the surface) for a city-state like Singapore won’t necessarily work for a local authority without the resources or public support needed to take a hardline approach.

Nor is it necessarily a good fit for the UK. Working with a client who has responsibility for a number of high-profile green spaces in London, Linstock found that co-operative messages – thanking people for not littering – were far more effective than the threat of fines.

Wilson and Kelling suggested harnessing social norms, our sense of community, and even proactive citizens, to reduce instances of anti-social and petty criminal behaviour. Malcolm Gladwell, in his pop-psychology bestseller ‘Tipping Point’, wrote about how this approach helped transform the New York City of the 1980s into the New York City we see now. Daily street cleaning, quickly removing graffiti, and swiftly fixing those broken windows, helped build community pride and changed the way people interacted with the environment around them until new norms were set and became self-sustaining. But, even this you have to be careful with. Our research found that highly visible cleaning teams actually increased littering, as people see litter as someone else’s responsibility. You have to keep everything clean, but not be seen doing it.

These kinds of targeted intervention combined with community engagement are tough to do right, but very effective when they are. Especially when local authorities facing further budget cuts need to do more with less. And particularly when the alternative is a tax which addresses the symptom – litter – rather the cause – a lack of sense of community.

Arlen Pettitt
Junior Consultant

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