What is litter?
Common litter items
The single most common litter item in Australia is the cigarette butt. Cigarette butts make up half of the litter in NSW.
Other common litter includes small pieces of paper, chip and confectionery wrappers, fast-food packaging materials, bottle caps, plastic straws, glass pieces, glass alcohol bottles and soft drink bottles (both plastic and metal).
New sources of litter are becoming increasingly evident. Changing consumer patterns in relation to take-away food, increased use of unsolicited advertising materials and the introduction of automatic teller machines are examples of activities that now impact on litter.
Lifestyles have also changed - we are busier, engage in more snacking and grazing and are increasingly relying on fast foods. This means more potential for litter in more places, more often.
Cigarettes - the big litter problem
- Approximately 7.2 billion cigarettes are discarded in Australia each year (Ref: 'The Industry' Ref: British American Tobacco Australia 2001 based on AC Nielsen exchange of Sales data). If placed end to end they would extend 144 000 kilometres and circle the planet 3.6 times.
- Cigarette butts make up 50% of litter items in NSW.
- Cigarette smoke contains up to 4000 chemicals.
- An estimated 100 000 tonnes of polluted air is exhaled by smokers in NSW each year.
- Cigarette butts take up to 5 years to break down.
What do we think of litter?
Litter has gone from being viewed primarily as an aesthetic problem to a broader environmental issue with wide ranging environmental problems. It is variously described as...
- something in the wrong place
- wasted material or resources
- wrong and bad for the environment and is linked automatically to the issue of recycling
- harmful (involves syringes, toxic waste and condoms) bringing fear of illness and disease
- a result of a consumerist, materialistic society.
Research has found that people classed litter as:
- Dangerous - syringes, broken bottles and glass
- Offensive - cigarette butts and condoms
- Unhygienic - animal droppings and food waste
- Lasting a long time - plastic bags/bottles, chip packets and fast food rubbish - "urban tumble weeds"
- Somewhat acceptable - "some graffiti is OK... dried chewing gum is on the pavement and pretty invisible".
So who litters?
There is no known gender, age or class differentiation in littering behaviour (although young men are more likely to admit to littering).
Littering behaviour is affected by...
- people thinking the item is not litter (cigarettes, food scraps)
- people not being willing to look for a bin
- lack of social pressure to do the right thing
- absence of realistic penalties or consistent enforcement
- social rebellion
- lack of knowledge of the environmental effects of littering
- poor packaging design
- amount of litter already present at a particular site
- presence and wording of signs referring to litter
- number/placement and appearance of bins at/near the site.
Research has found that people think of litterers as disgusting, disrespectful, lazy, ignorant, careless, dirty and unclean. Stereotypes exist for those who litter...
- Young people - "it's the ones in packs on their skateboards"
- Poorly educated - "some people never were taught & now can't learn"
- Males - "it's men that tend to do it, you know the ones too busy to care about anything but themselves and what they're doing"
- Singles - "it's not until you have responsibility that you think about these things"
- Those with a poor self image - " they don't care about themselves, how could they care about litter"
- The image conscious superficial - "she'd be a litterer, not when anyone's looking but when they weren't, she's so fake".
In reality, the community ranges from those who collect other people's litter to those who willfully litter. In the middle are those who don't care enough to overcome the inconvenience of finding a bin. Caring enough seems to be driven by...
- knowledge and awareness
- how much they care about the environment
- positive self image
- attitudes to life (ie happy and content)
- sense of community and an empathy with the needs of others
- ease of disposal
- context they are in
- type of litter
- if they can get away with it (either in terms of being observed or fined).
The EPA has identified five types of people with respect to litter...
- Non litterers - environmentally conscious, don't litter and usually pick up litter of others
- Inconvenients - too hard, too much trouble, someone else's problem
- Ignorants - these people are simply unaware of a link between the environment and their litter behaviour
- Willful Arrogants - usually litter in a context ie "it's OK to litter in urban areas but not in the bush"
- Anti-establishments - make a statement with purposeful littering
Smokers and litter
- Many smokers do not believe that littering their cigarette butts has an environmental impact or is inappropriate behaviour
- Many smokers blame their littering behaviour on a lack of well placed bins for cigarette butts
- Over 80% of smokers said they would bin their butts if suitable bins were available (three key areas for more bins were alongside every ordinary litter bin, at entrances to large city buildings and at bus stops).
- Over half of smokers said they would change their behaviour if they were more aware of the issue and their potential environmental impact.
Environmental impacts of litter
Litter is a problem throughout NSW, particularly in urban areas and in the more populated areas of Sydney, Newcastle and Wollongong.
Litter is an environmental priority because it:
- reduces the aesthetic appeal of public places including streets, parks and waterways
- can kill aquatic life directly (eg. through choking) and indirectly through its impacts on water quality
- can cause blockages of the drainage system and flooding (costing councils millions of dollars to repair)
- can be dangerous to people particularly when it involves items such as broken glass, needles and syringes
- may be a fire hazard (lit cigarettes being thrown from vehicles)
- costs the community huge sums of money to clean up every year
- can decrease oxygen levels when it decays in water.
Where do people litter?
Areas where people litter include beach/coastal sites, other waterways, national parks, urban areas, roadways, coming into towns, major visitor spots and major sporting venues.
A lack of bins is not a major factor in littering - most littering occurs within 5 metres of a bin. Bin use is most common between 11am and 2pm. Littering is most common about 4pm.
Site factors are also powerful determinants of behaviour - the more litter present, the more people are inclined to litter.
The environmental setting has an impact on people's behaviour. For example littering at places like cinema complexes, football grounds and theatres may be seen as acceptable sites as someone is paid to clean up.
Page last updated: 03 April 2013