Research and experience have shown that litter is the result of individual behavior—choosing to litter or being careless in the handling of waste. And once litter is on the ground, it attracts more litter. A clean community, by contrast, can discourage littering and improve community appearance and quality of life.
You have a role to play in preventing litter. It takes just one person, one school, one business, one organization to positively impact the behavior of others in their community. Now’s the time to get educated:
The Costs of American Littering
Over 51 billion pieces of litter land on U.S. roadways each year. Most of it, 46.6 billion pieces, is less than four inches, according to KAB’s 2009 National Visible Litter Survey and Litter Cost Study. That’s 6,729 items per mile.
While visible roadside litter has decreased by about 61% since 1969, litter is still a persistent problem. Consider these facts:
- Litter cleanup costs the U.S. almost $11.5 billion each year, with businesses paying $9.1 billion. Governments, schools, and other organizations pick up the remainder.
- Community economy and quality of life suffer. The presence of litter in a community takes a toll on quality of life, property values, and housing prices. KAB’s 2009 National Visible Litter Survey and Litter Cost Study found that litter in a community decreases property values 7%.
- Litter has environmental consequences. Wind and weather, traffic, and animals move litter into gutters, lawns and landscaped areas, alleyways, and parking structures. Debris may be carried by storm drains into local waterways, with potential for serious environmental contamination.
Who Litters and Why People Litter?
Along roadways, motorists (52%) and pedestrians (23%) are the biggest contributors to litter. Research also shows that individuals under 30 are more likely to litter than those who are older. In fact, age, and not gender, is a significant predictor of littering behavior.
Why do people litter? Here’s what KAB’s 2009 Littering Behavior in America research found:
- Personal choice. Individual behavior—or choosing to litter—means litter on the ground. Nearly one in five, or 17% of all disposals observed in public spaces were littering, while 83% disposed of litter properly. And 81% of littering was intentional, e.g., flicking, flinging, or dropping. On the other hand, individuals who hold the belief that littering is wrong, and consequently feel a personal obligation not to litter, are less likely to do so.
- Litter begets litter. Individuals are much more likely to litter into a littered environment. And once there, it attracts more litter. By contrast, a clean community discourages littering and improves overall community quality of life. Availability and proximity to trash and recycling receptacles also impact whether someone chooses to litter.
- It’s “not my responsibility”. Some people feel no sense of ownership for parks, walkways, beaches, and other public spaces. They believe someone else will pick up after them; that it’s not their responsibility.
Where do People Litter, and What Is Littered?
KAB’s 2009 National Visible Litter Survey and Litter Cost Study identified individual behavior as the primary contributor to litter in all locations. Individuals are littering on roads and highways and in retail, recreational, and residential locations:
- Roadway Litter - Tobacco products, mostly cigarette butts, are the most littered item on U.S. roadways (38%). This is followed by paper (22%) and plastic (19%). Most of the litter on roads and highways is caused by people. Research shows that littering along roadways is generated by the following individual actions:
- Motorists (52%)
- Pedestrians (22.8%)
- Improperly covered truck or cargo loads, including collection vehicles (16.4%)
- Improperly secured containers, dumpsters, trash cans or residential waste or recycling bins (1.5%)
- Non-Roadway Litter – Off the roads and highways, litter originates from many sources, but litter primarily collects at “transition points”.
- Transition points are entrances to businesses, transportation, and other places where items must be discarded before entering. Confection (candy, chocolate, gum, etc.) ranks at the top (53.7%) of what is littered at transition points; this is followed by cigarette butts at 29.8%.
Other locations that attract litter—starting from where most non-roadway litter occurs to least—include:
- Storm drains - Located primarily in gutters and designed to drain excess rain from paved streets, parking lots, etc. storm drains tend to attract cigarette butts, confection, and other litter.
- Loading docks - Areas behind retail and wholesale business where products are loaded/unloaded from trucks and trailers can become littered with cigarette butts, confection, and paper.
- Recreational Areas - Parks, beaches, courts, and open areas where people congregate for leisure activities create lots of opportunities for littering.
- Construction sites - Active residential or commercial construction are a trap for cigarette butts, paper, and plastic.
- Retail – High-traffic locations such as shopping centers, strip malls, and convenience stores can generate packaging litter, and cigarette butts and confection on the ground.
How to Put a Stop to Littering
To eliminate litter, KAB research shows we have to address both littering behavior and changing the environment. According to KAB’s 2009 Littering Behavior in America study:
- About 85% of littering is the result of individual attitudes. Changing individual behavior is key to preventing litter.
- Nearly one in five, or 17%, of all disposals observed in public spaces were littering. The remainder (83%) was properly discarded in a trash or recycling receptacle.
- A strong contributor to littering is the prevalence of existing litter. About 15% of littering is affected by the environment. Litter on the ground begets more litter.
Attitude Change Process
For over 30 years, KAB has successfully pursued a behavioral approach to reduce littering and increase beautification and waste reduction and recycling. The five-step KAB Attitude Change System, developed through research and field-testing, was designed for KAB with Dr. Robert F. Allen of the Human Resources Institute. Dr. Allen and his team of behavioral scientists identified the need to change behavior as the only effective way to achieve lasting, sustainable improvement in community quality of life. KAB teaches this five-step attitude change process as a primary tool for the development and implementation of culture changing programs and projects.
- Get the Facts
- Involve the People
- Develop a Plan
- Focus on Results
- Provide Positive Reinforcement
KAB’s “Pressure Points” for Behavior Change
Traditional approaches to litter, most particularly clean-up projects, work only to remove the litter and do litter to prevent its recurrence. KAB attempts to deal with the root cause of the problem—littering behavior. Changing attitudes and influencing behavior are brought about most effectively using a combination of methods:
- Education – Education and awareness are bedrock tools of behavior change. Think broadly in your approach. Consider tie-ins with public education conducted through youth programs, civic clubs, Chambers of Commerce, businesses, and government agencies.
- Ordinances – Changing public policy through codes, laws, or ordinances is one way to change behaviors around quality of life and environmental issues.
- Enforcement – Consistent and effective enforcement of existing codes, laws, and ordinances helps change behavior and reinforce the commitment to a cleaner, greener community. Work closely with local law enforcement, and be sure citizens are aware of the laws.
- Tools and Resources – This can include such tangible things as a litter pick up tools, sanitation collection vehicles, graffiti removal equipment, litter or ash receptacles, recycling bins, or a pocket ashtray. It also includes strategies that encourage individuals to make different long-term choices, blending knowledge from social marketing with behavior change tools.
What You Can Do to Prevent Litter
Changing a common behavior, like littering, starts with you. Each person must accept responsibility for their actions and influence the actions of others around them at home, at school, in your place of business, and in the community at large. Start with these actions:
- Choose not to litter. Make the commitment now to join with thousands of other Americans to not be a litter-bug.
- Join with others on Facebook. Get your friends and family to join.
- Remind others not to litter and why.
- Get a litter bag or portable ash receptacles to share.
- Volunteer in your community to help prevent and cleanup litter—from cigarette butts to illegal dumps. Find a Keep America Beautiful affiliate in your community
Find out more ways you—and others—can help prevent litter in your community:
- Set an example for others, especially family, co-workers, friends, and children by using trash and/or recycling receptacles and not littering.
- Always have available a litter bag in your car.
- If you are a smoker, carry and use a portable or pocket ashtray.
- If you see litter, pick it up.
- Carry and use a car litterbag. When these are full, empty them into a trash and/or recycling receptacle.
- Use a car ashtray or portable ashtray to dispose of cigarette butts and lighting material.
- Do not throw any litter out of vehicle windows.
- Before you light up, identify where you will dispose of your cigarette waste when you finish smoking. Use trash and ash receptacles, including pocket ashtrays.
- Carry a pocket ashtray all the time or have a portable ashtray with you as you leave your home, office, or car.
- Encourage fellow smokers to be responsible for their cigarette litter, too.
- Pick up after your dog as you walk through your neighborhood. Use newspaper delivery bags, "scoopers", or other easy-to-use methods to clean up after your pet.
- Be sure to put pet waste in trash receptacles and not recycling bins.
- Take responsibility for your pet and his/her actions.
- Make sure your trash cans have lids that can be securely fastened or use bungee cords to hold them in place.
- Secure all bags and use twine to secure loose trash for curbside trash collection.
- Tie paper into bundles before placing into curbside recycling bins.
- Provide litter bags for all government-owned vehicles. And provide tarps to any government vehicles that may transport items that could become litter.
- Identify "transition points" at all government-owned buildings; place ash and trash receptacles at these points and commit to proper maintenance of the receptacles.
- Leading by example will encourage building owners and business managers to place ash receptacles at points outdoors where their employees and/or customers smoke. Consider adopting building standards to encourage adequate disposal containers.
- Distribute portable or pocket ashtrays and litter bags.
- Educate citizens about individual responsibility for proper waste disposal.
- Provide ash and trash receptacles at entrances, exits, loading docks, picnic areas as well as in parking lots and along walkways of your business. Remember, these should be placed at “transition points” or where people generally gather.
- Assure easy access to dumpsters by employees and contractors. Check dumpsters daily to see that top and side doors are closed. This prevents scavengers from spreading trash on the ground.
- Cover all open loads on trucks leaving your business. Encourage vendors and contractors to do the same.
- Educate your employees about the importance of individual responsibility for a clean and safe working environment.
- Use information from Keep America Beautiful to initiate education programs throughout the community that address sustainable community improvement through litter prevention, beautification, and waste reduction and recycling.
- Provide support to government leaders in their efforts to place and maintain receptacles at government buildings.
- Provide support to businesses that practice litter prevention.
- Make your festival, fair, or any outdoor community events "waste-wise” or “litter free" from the initial planning stages of the event.
- Give out litter bags and portable or pocket ashtrays at the entrances of your event and make sure everyone knows that your event is a "waste-wise” or “litter free" event.
- Place large trash and recycling receptacles near food venues and eating areas. Remember, a large event with a large number of attendees need large, well-marked receptacles.
- If you place event volunteers nearby to help attendees find the receptacles as they need them, you will reduce clean up while educating people about recycling and proper waste disposal.
- Pass out litter bags and portable or pocket ashtrays to boaters and their guests.
- Provide ash, trash, recycling and bulk waste receptacles dockside for your customers.
- Install fishing line collection receptacles with signage to collect broken and used line. Keep fishing line out of the water!
- Offer litter bags, ash receptacles, and trash containers in your supply store.