Ben Caldecott is Head of Policy Exchange’s Environment and Energy Unit and here he previews Litterbugs: How to deal with the Problem of Littering, which is being launched today and is now available to download as a pdf.
Littering is probably the most widespread form of anti-social
behaviour in the UK. Since the 1960s the amount of litter dropped
annually has increased by approximately 500% and littering has become
one of the most important local issues for the public. Town centres
suffer from the plight of cigarette butts, chewing gum and free
newspapers, rural areas face the challenge of drive-by litter, and the
litter on our beaches has increased by 97% since 1994.
Quite apart from the very obvious impact litter has on the beauty of
our cities, towns and countryside, the direct costs of managing litter
are large: councils spend an estimated £500 million a year on cleaning.
The indirect costs are also considerable: companies in heavily littered
areas lose business, and such areas are linked to increasing crime
rates and anti-social behaviour. In both town and country, wildlife
also risks ingesting litter and pollutants.
In order to help improve this dire situation, Policy Exchange’s new report, Litterbugs: How to deal with the Problem of Littering, has
investigated who litters, why they litter and the options available to
prevent people from littering. From our study it’s obvious that there
is much more we can and should do.
Through the polling and in-depth interviews with local authorities we
conducted for the report, we found that littering is symptomatic of
social and individual attitudes towards both public space and waste. We
found that the most common reasons for littering are that an area is
already littered; cleaning up is perceived to be the responsibility of
someone else; there are no bins or ashtrays nearby; or when there is no
incentive to dispose of litter properly. Efforts to tackle litter
should target each one of these causes in turn. In the UK this has not
been done in a sufficiently determined or coordinated way. Our
anti-littering strategy is failing.
Of the many things we can do to reduce littering, there are two in
particular that should be brought to the fore. First, we should create
virtuous cycles of behaviour through the introduction of a national
deposit scheme and second, we should apply fines with greater
consistency across the country.
The principles of behavioural and social psychology underpin the design
of deposit schemes. By rewarding “good” or desirable behaviour, in this
case not littering, we can help to perpetuate it. We have a number of
tools available to begin these virtuous circles. In the case of a
deposit scheme, creating a financial incentive can help to outweigh the
costs of good behaviour, such as inconvenience, which result in people
choosing a less socially desirable option. In addition to financial
reward, “good” behaviour can also be encouraged by integrating positive
behaviour into an individual’s sense of identity and utilising social
norms, or the perception of what is normal behaviour.
The success of deposit schemes in well illustrated by the New York
State deposit scheme that started in 1983. This example provides us
with good long term information about the viability and success of
deposit schemes in an area comparable to large parts of the UK. The law
was an immediate success: litter in New York State declined by 30% and
over the past 25 years, the act has reduced container litter by 70-80%
and roadside litter by 70%. In 2004, 84% of New Yorkers supported the
act and 78% agreed that it had made their state much cleaner. With this
level of public support, it is perhaps unsurprising that New York State
is looking to extend the scheme.
In addition to a missing deposit scheme, an inconsistent view across
local authorities of what constitutes littering and when fines should
be applied is undermining our anti-littering strategy. Only a small
minority of local authorities make use of the powers to fine available
to them. As a result, our research found that there was no significant
correlation across the country between the use of fines and
improvements in UK littering rates. This does not mean that fines
cannot act as a deterrent, only that they currently fail to do so
because most people do not consider fines a credible or probable
To improve the efficacy of fining as a deterrent, there should be
greater consistency in the application of fines across local
authorities. The tendency not to fine the worst offenders, such as
young urban males, because wardens perceive them to be threatening and
dangerous should also end. This has resulted in less threatening
members of the public being fined and public trust in the system being
eroded. Consistency in the application of penalties would improve this
situation, but will require investment in enforcement capabilities and
in training, so that the worst offenders can be caught and punished.
Litter is both more important and more complex an issue than is
generally perceived. Its ability to impact on our fundamental quality
of life has been underestimated for too long. Hundreds of millions of
pounds are now being spent tackling a problem that only seems to be
There is hope though. Our research has shown how the situation can be
improved. Litter can be reduced if we develop and implement a new
national strategy consistently and draw more effectively on mechanisms
that can change people’s behaviour for the better.