Littering – A global scourge

IMG_5724 - garbage

by Theresa Peluso

Part II

This is the second and final part of my article on littering. In Part I, I defined the problem and described local initiatives, as well as approaches taken in the United States by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), to address this problem. All in all, the EPA’s approach is more of a stick than a carrot, but appears to be effective.

In Europe, some experts are taking the carrot approach, so to speak, to address the problem of littering, according to the Clean Europe Network (CEN) document produced earlier this year (cleaneuropenetwork.eu/…/communications-best-practice-guide-finalcom). The Clean Europe Network is a pan-European platform started in 2013 which enables litter-prevention groups (some of these member groups of CEN started their own anti-litter campaigns over 30 years ago) to share their expertise and research in their own country with a view to improving litter prevention across the European Union.

To solve a problem, it’s important to identify the stakeholders. Most people value cleanliness. Environmentalists are concerned about the harm garbage does to the natural world. Big businesses have a vested interest in preventing negative associations of litter with their products. Smaller businesses are concerned about litter around their establishments, which makes the shopping experience less appealing for customers. Public authorities also have an interest in collecting waste and preventing litter, because of their obligation to provide a clean and safe community.

To design appropriate anti-litter solutions, it helps to classify litterers into groups, and to identify where the littering happens. For example, the motorists who feel compelled to clean their cars out as they drive. The outdoor enthusiasts who decide that the woods or the lake are appropriate substitutes for a garbage bin. The person strolling down a street in town who chucks away his/her cigarette butt or candy wrapper instead of looking for a waste bin. The dog walkers too lazy to pick up after their pets. The people too cheap to pay for a landfill pass to dispose of the contents of their freezers, sheds and workshops, who dump their garbage in culverts or on trails and roadsides.

Who hasn’t been to a mass event, such as a festival, without cringing at the garbage strewn about on the site? Huge crowds, eating and drinking as they wander from place to place, feeling anonymous among all the strangers around them, seem to abdicate personal responsibility for their behaviour, specifically littering. Somehow they assume it will “all get taken care of”.

By analyzing the motivations of these litterers, it may be possible to come up with strategies to improve their behaviour. Public officials, for the most part, provide bins to businesses and in public places, and operate an infrastructure and maintenance program to reduce litter. They could make their jobs easier by investing in public

education, and remind citizens about the need to keep their community clean and safe, and to set a good example for others. Big business also have the wherewithal and marketing talent to convey positive, litter-prevention messages to their millions of customers. Property and business owners in populated areas can provide suitable receptacles to help thoughtless people act correctly.

To be successful, it’s important to get the strategy right. Advertising has to target the motivations of these litterers. It must also happen in the right place at the right time (before the targeted behaviour happens), be carried out in collaboration with partners (including the media, schools, community groups, and local authorities), and be creative. The more interactive and sustained over time these messages are, the higher the chances of success. A very powerful way of getting your message across is through people in high-profile positions, such as sports stars, celebrities, opinion leaders, and classroom teachers.

For public education to work, the prevailing social norms (for example, lack of awareness of littering behaviour and its real, negative impacts) need to be identified, and redirected so that littering becomes perceived as socially unacceptable. The message may be positive, consisting of media ads that show people how reducing litter improves their health and well-being, and reduces anti-social behaviour in their community. Or the message may be negative, showing the economic impact of littering; how it deters consumers from buying products that they see scattered on the roadsides, or from frequenting stores in littered areas; and how it results in property tax increases to cover municipal costs incurred by having to remove dumped trash and garbage-strewn sidewalks, and unblock clogged ditches. If the leaders and trend-setters in the community get on board with promoting anti-littering messages, the level of acceptance is greater.

A huge part of public education involves educating children through school- and leisure-based programs about the harm caused by littering. In response to research showing that children between the ages of 5 and 12 are the most receptive to public education, the Foundation for Environmental Education (now part of CEN) started the Eco-Schools program in 1994, with the support of Denmark, Germany, Greece and the United Kingdom. This program now operates in 53 countries around the world, in more than 40,000 schools – and our very own Naismith Memorial Public School in Almonte is one of them! The Eco-Schools program focuses on embedding the principles of sustainable living, in a fun and engaging way, into the heart of school life. One of the objectives of this program is litter and waste reduction.

Another approach used in various CEN campaigns is to make it easier NOT to litter by providing easily accessible garbage bins, which (it must be said) are not cheap to buy, install and maintain. But, to be effective, it needs to be preceded by extensive public education.

Vacances Propres in France ensure their anti-litter campaign, consisting of clear, prominent, humorous posters and media advertisements, is accompanied by litter bins

and Vacances Propres’ own distinctive, readily available garbage bags, found everywhere – at people’s curbs (where they are used for regular waste collection), on beaches, in the mountains and at other holiday spots, as well as public areas, and including special events such as the Tour de France. Over 50 percent of French citizens recognize the VP brand, and more than 2.5 million bags are used each year.

A Danish survey found that 59 percent of Danes admitted to having thrown garbage out of their car windows. Based on this report, and taking into account the amount of money spent on cleaning roadside garbage, Keep Denmark Tidy designed a campaign to make it easier for drivers dispose of their waste more responsibly: Trash lanes, featuring giant roadside waste funnels attached to bins along the side of the road in which motorists could throw their waste products. The giant funnels were preceded by a series of information boards notifying drivers that they could dispose of waste in 50, 15 and 5 metres. Pocket trash bags and ashtrays were made available beforehand to drivers, so that they had somewhere to keep their litter before using the waste funnels. The campaign received free media coverage and financial assistance from a range of partners, including the Danish Ministry of the Environment. These trash lanes, which were deployed during a three-month period at highway entry and exit points and rest areas, were not only fun and convenient to use, they also highlighted the problem of littering and better yet, led to a 75 percent reduction in highway litter.

In the Netherlands, Nederland Schoon (Clean Netherlands) has gone to huge pains to make bins available wherever litter tends to be thrown. To make sure cigarette butts are disposed of appropriately, they have installed smokers’ poles (cigarette receptacles) and provided free portable ashtrays (which can be slipped into one’s pocket) wherever smokers congregate – outside non-smoking venues such as restaurants, bars, offices, public transportation stops, as well as in recreational areas.

Outdoor festivals are always a source of litter, and for these, Nederland Schoon helps festival organizers by providing suitable bins and positive communications about not littering. Given the huge numbers of festival participants, disposal facilities need to be strategically placed, easy to use and easy to empty. Free tickets are handed out to people who are seen cleaning litter on the festival grounds.

So what other anti-littering strategies and campaigns have CEN members used? Indevuilbak’s (Flemish for “in the trashcan”) campaign envisioned establishing a new social norm in Belgium, to make “litter a thing of the past”, and to shift the population’s behaviour towards that norm. They did this by confronting people with a strong message, focusing on the benefit to the community, and stressing positive reinforcement by emphasizing that “we all stand together”. They used a lot of humour in their advertising, which they displayed in magazines, on roadside billboards and advertising spaces at public transport stops and on vehicles. This campaign lasted for two summers.

Indevuilbak also targeted litter from student parties. The campaign used student organizations, popular student radio stations and music bands, and other well-regarded sources of leaderships to convey their message. As an incentive, they challenged students to collaborate in making their neighbourhood the cleanest of all the participating communities during an entire week. A well-defined litter count was established during that time. The reward was to provide the winners with the biggest, hottest party. The campaign had a significant short-term impact, but it was felt it would need to be repeated to have a more lasting effect.

Indevuilbak organized a second project called “Snack Ways” (Litter Pathways to Schools) because of the proliferation of litter on the paths and sidewalks that children and teens use on their way to school and back. It was felt that these youngsters are too engrossed in socializing or other activities, to think about litter. So they provided free Wi-Fi access, situated next to highly visible seats an arm’s length away from litter bins. In addition, Indevuilbak also designed a special phone app for youth to play with – The Paper Tossing Championship. The objective was to raise awareness of the need to place litter in the bin in a fun way. The campaign ran for seven weeks across Flanders, with the Wi-Fi towers/seats installed for two weeks at a time in each place. The campaign was extremely popular with everyone, including those not targeted by the campaign.

Keep Britain Tidy focuses on making people aware of the cost of litter clean-up – over one billion British pounds per year is spent in England alone. The group explained that this was money diverted from more positive projects; for example, funding 4,400 libraries. They also demonstrated the direct costs and lost opportunities for businesses. Their campaign consisted of asking municipalities to leave their streets only half-cleaned for an entire weekend. This stunt attracted significant media interest. Clearly, this strategy made the litter issue front and centre in the public’s eye, but it’s not clear how it was followed up.

Keep Britain Tidy has also addressed the problem of dog fouling, using peer pressure and warnings, by displaying vivid posters in dog-fouling hot spots during a three-month period. The posters emphasized that 9 out 10 dog owners clean up after their dogs, and that violators were subject to fines. The campaign resulted in an overall decrease in dog fouling by an average of 46%, with no displacement of the problem to other areas.

In contrast with groups that focus on specific litter issues, Keep Sweden Tidy members concentrate on highlighting the problem of litter in general, raising awareness and changing social norms to see litter as an important concern. They target decision makers, policy makers, and other leaders, to make littering part of the public debate. They encourage people to become actively involved in sharing their views by publishing opinion pieces in the main newspapers. The Keep Sweden Tidy campaign also collaborates with companies to help them fulfill their roles as corporate citizens and enlists their financial support. This is a long-term campaign to empower people by making use of pre-existing positive trends and amplifying them.

Many of these strategies clearly demonstrate creativity, and they had the desired effect of reducing littering. Obviously, many of them also cost a lot to implement, and a small municipality like ours would be unable to come up with the requisite funding.

In addition to some of the suggestions mentioned in Part I on this topic (published last month), perhaps we could build on some of CEN’s approaches. What would happen if we only cleaned part of the sidewalk in front of the high school for a week (of course, this would need to be preceded by a publicity campaign)? Is the idea of funnels on some of our roads (approaching intersections) too outlandish? Perhaps our municipality could place ads in the local papers praising merchants who have recycling/take-it-back programs, and announcing a rewards program for people who use this option, to decrease illegal dumping. We also need many more garbage bins, including recycling bins, in high-traffic areas, and cigarette poles installed where smokers congregate. Finally, we need more public education, and more involvement by the schools in teaching children – including adolescents – about the need to care for our natural environment. Let’s put litter prevention at the top of our priority list and make it happen!