The research suggests a gap between attitudes and behaviour. People generally view littering as bad, but they continue to litter in particular circumstances.
Over a number of years organisations including the Department of Environment and Climate Change NSW (incorporating the Environment Protection Authority NSW and Resource NSW), the Beverage Industry Environment Council, Keep Australia Beautiful NSW, Clean Up Australia and the Australian Bureau of Statistics have collected data in this area and/or conducted research into the issue.
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In designing and evaluating the NSW Government's Litter Prevention Program, DECC has undertaken a wide range of research studies including a literature review, qualitative research through focus groups into people's knowledge, attitudes and behaviour surrounding littering, and evaluations of each phase of the litter prevention campaign.
DECC has also drawn on the significant body of ongoing research on littering behaviour in Australia conducted for the Beverage Industry Environment Council. The following overview of the results of litter research is drawn from DECC research and the following:
Prior to the first phase of the Litter Prevention Program, DECC commissioned a study of attitudes to littering. Seven group discussions were conducted in February 2000. The groups were chosen from middle and lower socio-economic levels in Sydney, Newcastle and Wollongong in order to give a cross-section of attitudes according to age, marital and family status, and ethnicity.
The Fast Life, Fast Litter study suggested five 'mindsets' regarding attitudes and behaviour. At one extreme are the 'wilful arrogant' and 'anti-establishment' litterers who are aware that littering is anti-social, but who have no desire or capacity to change because of peer pressure and broader social problems. At the other extreme are 'collectors', who do not litter and who bother to clean up other people's litter. In between are people who litter as a matter of convenience or through ignorance. However, littering behaviour is complex and a person may litter as a 'wilful arrogant' while with a peer group, but litter as an 'inconvenient' in a different social setting.
DECC studies indicate that the Do the Right Thing litter campaign of the 1980s had played a valuable role. People now associate litter with broader environment issues as well as safety (for example syringes, broken glass, asbestos and stormwater pollution harming aquatic life), not just aesthetics. Litter prevention needs to draw upon the broader environmental, social and aesthetic associations of litter.
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DECC and other research (Community Change 1997a & b) identifies the major reasons for littering as:
- a perception by many that litter is not an important environmental concern, and
- in particular contexts (such as at a football stadium or cinema, or on New Year's Eve), a feeling that someone else is paid to clean up anyway.
Despite common stereotypes as to who litters, the studies are contradictory about the socio-economic status of litterers, and whether young people litter the most. What is clear is that most people litter in some circumstances, but seek to rationalise their behaviour.
The following sections on litterers and their attitudes and behaviour draws on a major Australia-wide Australian study examining the relationships between people's attitudes, self-reported behaviour and observed behaviour in respect to littering (Community Change 1997b).
People of all ages and social backgrounds litter although there are some variations:
- men and women are equally likely to litter
- people under age 15 are least likely to litter
- people under the age of 25 are most likely to litter when in a group, people over the age of 25 are most likely to litter when alone
- people aged 15-24 have a slightly higher than average rate of littering than other adults
- littering is influenced by social contexts, so for example, people may litter in some circumstances e.g. when unobserved, but not in public.
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Lack of bins is not a major factor in littering. Most littering occurs within five metres of a bin. This is particularly the case for cigarettes.
Bin use is most common between 11:00am and 2:00pm. Littering is most common about 4:00pm.
Site factors are powerful determinants of behaviour - the more litter present, the more people are inclined to litter. Also, the more convenient the bin placement and the more obtrusive its appearance, the less people are likely to litter. People do respond to signage, and the more polite the signage, the better the response. However, over time the impact of signage diminishes.
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Three quarters of survey respondents say that littering is a 'very important' or 'extremely important' environmental issue. Three quarters also say it was 'never' acceptable to litter.
Littering evokes a range of emotions and associations. It is seen as:
- dangerous - 'dumping asbestos'
- unhygienic - 'dog droppings get into waterways'
- offensive - 'I hate cigarette butts'
- wasteful - 'why not recycle it?'
- having longevity - 'chip packets and plastic bags don't decompose, they blow around like urban tumble-weeds'.
There are often major differences between the attitudes people express to interviewers and their disposal behaviours:
- more than half of people observed littering within the previous five minutes tell interviewers they had not littered in the past 24 hours or could not remember littering
- four out of five people observed dropping cigarette butts say they do consider butts to be litter.
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A wide range of behaviours are associated with littering:
- many people use the bin but also litter
- some people put the bulk of their items in the bin but forget small items
- some people consistently litter some types of objects while binning others.
There are a number of litter behaviour 'types' including:
- 'wedgers', who hide litter in cracks
- 'buriers', particuarly on beaches
- 'foul shooters', who take basketball shots at the bin
- 'inchers', who gradually distance themselves from litter items.
DECC focus group research identified five groups with respect to litter behaviours:
- non litterers - environmentally conscious, don't litter and usually pick up others' litter
- inconvenients - not littering is too hard, too much trouble, someone else's problem
- unaware - unaware of the link between the environment and their litter behaviour
- selectives - 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
Littering behaviour seems to be affected by:
- people thinking the item is not litter (e.g. 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 or near the site.
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Research and literature tell us that the following approaches produce a decrease in littering:
- legislation - broadening the options for litter fines combined with more effective enforcement
- anti-littering signs and providing littering and recycling facilities
- community education encouraging people to take responsibility for preventing littering
- social marketing through mass media advertising
- funding community-based litter prevention programs
- school education and parenting skills
Integrated, multi-strategy programs based on rigorous research and including sound evaluation are most likely to be successful.
The research on litter reduction points to the need to integrate a number of approaches to reduce litter:
- community involvement
- infrastructure, such as signs, bins and recycling facilities
- financial insentives
Page last updated: 02 March 2011