Littering is a huge problem—and a crime. Litter refers to small amounts of trash thrown where it doesn’t belong. Americans as a whole seem to consider it too inconvenient to carry a bottle, candy wrapper, mask, or other small items to a trash can. So they drop it or throw it from car windows.
Litter also gets into the environment when a trashcan overflows. It can be either a household trashcan at the curb or a public trashcan that doesn’t get emptied quickly enough. The wind blows light items out of the can and into the surrounding area. Or beyond.
When people see litter in an area, they take it as permission to add more. Municipalities and states must spend millions of dollars every year to clean up litter. They have laws against littering but don’t enforce them.
The Ohio Department of Transportation removes more than 400,000 bags of litter from along the state’s highways every year. With what the effort costs—about $4 million—the department could repave 40 miles of a two-lane road or buy 38 new snowplows.
Unfortunately, littering seems to be hardwired into the human experience. Centuries and centuries of laws regarding waste disposal haven’t stopped it. Maybe some discoveries in psychological research can help.
Some littering problems
People experience no consequences for littering, so it seems not to matter. But it does matter:
- If litter includes needles or broken glass, people and animals can cut themselves when walking on it.
- Throwing cigarette butts from a car window can cause fires. Fires destroy property and kill people every year.
- Plastic bags and other light waste will eventually get into sewers or streams. A plastic bag across a stream can make it flood much more readily and extensively that it would if it flowed clearly. If nothing interrupts its course, plastic waste will eventually enter the ocean.
- Cigarette butts and plastic can also leach toxic chemicals into the soil, air, and water.
- To many animals, including marine life, plastic litter looks like food. They can’t digest it. If it makes them feel full, they won’t eat. They starve to death. Animals can also get entangled in plastic. Unable to move, they may starve or choke to death.
- Even if plastic passes out of an animal’s body, a residue remains. Plastic bioaccumulates. That is, an animal low on the food chain has plastic in its body. When a carnivore eats that animal, it also eats the plastic, which stays in its body. We humans, as top-level predators, have plastic in our bodies. No one yet understands the long-term consequences.
- Litter in general very likely contains hazardous materials. These materials pollute air, water, and soil.
At the very least, litter makes an area look bad. People begin to avoid ugly areas. If tourists avoid an area, the area’s businesses lose income.
Beyond the obvious littering problems
Littering is probably part of the human DNA. Archeologists have discovered that prehistoric people who could make floors of clay would litter their houses and simply add a fresh layer of from time to time. When that became untenable, people would dump it outside.
Refuse included household garbage and human wastes. No one wanted it nearby, but too many people wouldn’t voluntarily go to any great effort to get rid of it.
In about 500 B.C., ancient Athens enacted a law that required citizens to dump refuse at least a mile out of town. It explicitly forbade dumping it in the streets. That’s the earliest law I know of. But surely even preliterate societies tried to enforce similar requirements from time to time.
The ancient Romans started the first known waste collection system in about 200 B.C. Crews of two men would collect waste, including excrement, put it in a wagon, and take it out of town. Maybe they just dumped it in the Tiber downriver from the city.
Until the invention of plastic, most waste was organic and biodegradable. Ancient dumps attracted rats and other pests, but eventually, most of it decayed. Even bits of broken pottery, glass, or metal tools could cause no long-term environmental problems.
Special problems with plastic
Actually, the problem with plastic goes beyond litter. Even when we properly dispose of it, it harms the environment. In landfills, chemicals from plastic leach into the surrounding groundwater. No one has yet built a landfill liner that can’t leak. In addition, it takes a lot of fuel to collect and haul all the trash—even the portion that gets recycled.
Recycling, in fact, requires a lot of transportation: from your home to the recycling center and then to a processing facility before it reaches the company that will make new products from it.
Instead of landfilling, some places incinerate trash. Burning plastic releases noxious chemicals into the atmosphere. So instead of polluting the ground or water, it pollutes the air.
We simply have too much plastic in the first place. More important than any anti-littering campaign is finding sustainable alternatives to single-use plastics.
Possible littering solutions
Robert Cialdini, professor emeritus of psychology and marketing at Arizona State University, has conducted some eye-opening research.
For example, his teams have placed flyers under the windshield wipers of some of the cars in a parking lot. Then they have watched to see what the people do when they return to their cars. As it turns out, the appearance of the parking lot determines what happens to the flyers.
If the parking lot is already heavily littered, people will simply drop the flyers on the ground. People are less likely to do so if they don’t see any litter. But they are least likely to litter if they see one piece of litter. It reminds them that most people don’t litter here.
In addition, people notice other people. If they see someone littering, they’re more likely to litter themselves. If they see someone picking up litter and reacting to it with disapproval, they’re less likely to add another piece. The researchers reported that not one person littered after seeing someone show disapproval of litter and picking some up. That person doesn’t need to say a word. Body language communicates better.
People’s attitudes toward the environment have some influence on their behavior. What they observe is the norm has greater influence.
Limitations of public relations
Cialdini says it would have worked better if it had portrayed a more positive norm. Hotels have demonstrated the effect of positive norms.
If people who stay more than one night reuse their towels, the hotels can save a lot of water and electricity from laundering fewer towels.
Signage that simply requests people to reuse towels works less well than signage that implies that most guests reuse towels.
One final good example of public education about littering
The Anchorage Museum mounted an exhibit called Gyre. It displayed artworks made of trash collected from Alaskan beaches. The staff has witnessed families looking at it and talking about how they can change their behavior as they leave. It has started conversations about why people litter.
I haven’t seen the exhibit, but apparently it didn’t scold or exhort. That may be why it worked. It’s something other museums can probably do fairly easily.
Littering and following the crowd / Vivian Wagner, The Atlantic. August 1, 2014
The past, present, and future of solid waste disposal / David Guion, Sustaining Our World. Revised February 27, 2017
What is littering? / Conserve Energy Future
Why littering is not the true problem / Allie Molinaro, Clean Water Action. July 30, 2018
Can and paper litter. Photo by Suzy Hazelwood from Pexels
Plastic bag in a garden. Some rights reserved by Julian Stallabrass
Bottles on a beach. Public domain from Wikimedia Commons
Litter Duck. Public domain from Wikimedia Commons
Picking up litter. Some rights reserved by Robin
Overflowing trash can. Some rights reserved by m01229