The rule of six is back – and so are piles upon piles of litter. Social media has been flooded with images of parks and beaches scattered with rubbish this week, as the nation reunites with picnics (and the odd tinny) outdoors.
It’s made many of us ask the same question: why do people litter at all? Surely, we’re all capable of taking our rubbish with us if the bins are full, right?
Wrong. The thing is, almost everyone litters at some point in their lives, according to a review of evidence by research consultancy Brook Lyndhurst on behalf of Zero Waste Scotland.
It’s partly driven by our desire to be rid of rubbish quickly, dubbed ‘the ick factor’ by the researchers. If we’re holding a sticky ice lolly but we can’t see a bin (or the bin is full), for example, we’ll convince ourselves it’ll decompose in the bushes anyway.
“There is evidence to suggest that people rationalise their littering behaviour through excuses in order to alleviate the associated guilt,” they say.
The extent of our littering and the frequency of such behaviour is influenced by a number of factors, though, including where we are, who we’re with, and how we feel about our setting.
A key influence is our sense of responsibility for litter, which can be stronger or weaker depending on the environment.
“For example, places where the public believe that someone else will clean up after them, such as council-maintained sites and indoor public spaces, are often seen as more acceptable places in which to litter,” the report explains.
We’re also less likely to drop our rubbish in the immediate presence of people who are considered ‘respectable company’, such as parents or employers. “The presence of children can have a similar effect, as parents aim to set a good example,” the report adds. “The presence of peers seems to drive littering behaviour among the young, but correct disposal among older age groups.”
Unsurprisingly, people litter less frequently in places they care about and feel connected to. In contrast, it can be a form of rebellion for those who feel disenfranchised or alienated from their community, the report says.
Mariajose Algarra, founder of the US movement Clean This Beach Up, thinks “entitlement” and plain old “laziness” also contribute. “Some litterers have a feeling that other people, especially those who get paid to, should clean up after them,” she told HuffPost. “Others litter due to laziness and believe that disposing of trash property is an inconvenience.”
There’s also evidence that neat, tidy places encourage better behaviour, while people simply add to piles of litter in places they already consider unkempt. This was seen in a 2016 Defra-funded study by Keep Britain Tidy, which concluded “people [are] more likely to litter in areas where litter is already present”.
“The findings also appear to suggest that the presence of large, more salient items of litter (e.g. branded or brightly coloured items) might further increase the likelihood of additional litter being dropped,” the report said.
It concluded that more research is needed on the influence of bright, branded litter – dubbed ‘beacons of litter’ – and suggested street cleanups might want to focus on these items as a priority to slow the domino effect.
But what can the rest of us do if we’re frustrated by the piles of muck? Leading by example is the first step, as others will be compelled to follow social norms if you’re visibly getting rid of your rubbish properly. Then, there’s the option to join a clean-up project and reconnect with your local community in the process.
Keep Britain Tidy will be hosting a Great British Spring Clean from May 28 to June 13 2021. You can ‘pledge to pick’ online, where you’ll also find guidance on hygiene and staying safe while litter-picking during the pandemic.
Finally, shove an extra carrier bag or washable tote into your backpack next time you have a picnic, so you can carry away your rubbish – it’s not that hard.