Why Do People Litter?

Like most human behaviour, people’s disposal behaviour in public places is complex. Evidence from social science research shows that what people do with their unwanted stuff is the outcome of four different groups of factors.

We discuss all these factors in much greater detail in our book Litter-ology: Understanding Littering and the Secrets to Clean Public Places.

  1. ‘Care of place’ factors that influence people’s perception of how ‘cared for’ a place looks
  2. Responsibility factors that influence people’s sense of responsibility in looking after a place
  3. Penalties and rewards that influence disposal behaviour motivation
  4. Individual factors that involve people’s personal beliefs, views, habits and preferences
  5. ‘Wildcard’ factors

These factors influence people’s behaviour even though they may be completely unaware of them. They work dynamically and interdependently and depend on the context in which they occur, making them a bit like the weather. Think of each influence as a type of wind. Each gust will blow with a particular force and direction, eliciting a particular behaviour, for a particular individual, in a particular place, at a particular time. While we can’t predict with certainty exactly what intensity and wind direction will be required to produce any individual action, we know enough about their general characteristics to forecast how they’re likely to influence community behaviour.

1 ‘Care of Place’

The more ‘cared for’ a place looks, the more likely we are to adjust our actions to help it stay that way.

Social Norms

All human beings look to others to know what values, beliefs, attitudes and behaviour are socially acceptable or unacceptable. Over time, if enough people share them they become unwritten social ‘rules’ or social norms.

This strong human desire to fit in with others means that what we think others are doing becomes a strong guide for what we perceive is expected of us in public places. Certain features of a place act as ‘signals’ for what the expected behaviour is, so in a very clean place, the lack of litter is a strong signal that littering is not acceptable and, congruent with the widely accepted norm that people should clean up after themselves, they’re unlikely to litter.

Physical Features – Mediators for Social Norms

One of the key outcomes of our behavioural research that’s also been established by many other researchers is that ‘clean equals clean’. The cleaner a place is, the less people are likely to litter there. Physical features of a place, like bins, also send strong signals to people about what the expected behaviour in a place is. But perhaps less evident is that this ‘signalling’ extends to other physical infrastructure like paving, seats, play equipment, entrances, plants and landscaping for example. The physical features of a place don’t directly influence behaviour but are really mediators for social norms, that is, people ascribe certain social meanings to them (either consciously or unconsciously) and then act accordingly.

2 Responsibility Factors

People vary as to who they consider is responsible to look after a public place and what they expect from others. They exist along a continuum where at one end of the scale, someone else (like local government) is seen as responsible and at the other, only the people who use the place.

Social Compact

A view that’s commonly held is that members of the community are accountable for littering but it’s the council’s responsibility to clean it up. In turn, public place managers themselves are constantly trying to increase the sense of responsibility felt by the community in caring for their public places and helping to keep them clean.

This mutual sense of shared responsibility is known as the social compact, an unstated agreement that ‘if you do your bit I’ll do mine’.

Sense of Community

The primal need to connect with others extends to how we relate to our surroundings in public places. More than just familiarity, a good public place reflects a sense of caring and welcome, whether it’s a busy vibrant shopping hub or a quieter place of contemplation. It feels good to be in places like these and we’re often likely to refer to them as having a ‘good sense of community’. If enough people have these feelings for a place, a strong sense of shared ownership will develop, with people looking out for both the place and each other. This feeling of involvement and attachment leads to a sense of shared responsibility to look after the place, with littering and damage far less likely to occur.

3 Penalties & Rewards

Most places in the world have a system of penalties in place for littering, which deal with the issue after the fact. By penalising someone for littering, you’re hoping that they’re less likely to do it in the future. You’re also expecting though, that the mere threat of a penalty will be enough to deter people from littering in the first place.

You can also reward people for good behaviour. People ‘caught’ doing the right thing may be given rewards like shopping vouchers from local businesses and their positive disposal behaviour publicised in the media to encourage others to do the right thing. Some places have also tried to make the task of bin use itself satisfying or ‘rewarding’ by using games, play and interesting noises when someone uses the bin.

4 Individual Factors

People’s individual beliefs, personal habits and preferences also influence their behaviour.

What I Do Doesn't Really Matter

The degree to which someone believes that a situation is controllable can influence what they do with their used stuff. This level of perceived control may be quite low for some people who believe that there’s no point putting something in the bin ‘because I’m only one person and what I do won't make any difference’. In contrast, some see their individual actions as an important part of the whole, try never to litter and may even pick up other people’s stuff because they believe their example will inspire others to do the same.

But I Didn’t Put It There

In general, people are not inclined to pick up litter that they didn't drop themselves. We’ve observed many people in public places who’ll walk around litter that’s in their way, rather than pick it up. Of course, some people feel a strong responsibility to ‘restore damage’ done by others because they feel a wider sense of responsibility to the wider community, to future generations or other species or the planet as a whole.

People’s World View

At the more extreme ends of the disposal behaviour continuum are those who have fundamental beliefs about how they see the world in general. There are those who demonstrate a more individualistically oriented ‘world view’ where they consider their rights as an individual are paramount and that the world, for the most part, should fit in with them. In contrast, others have very altruistic beliefs and feel they have a responsibility to fix the damage done by others for the benefit of the community as a whole, including future generations.

Incorrect Beliefs

There are beliefs that people hold that are simply wrong. For example, some believe that cigarette butts will quickly break down in the environment or that biodegradable items aren’t really litter and degrade far more quickly than they actually do. And sometimes, people simply don’t understand the problem or its consequences, for example, not understanding that litter is carried through stormwater to the sea where it can kill wildlife and pollute the water.

The Ick Factor

Studies on environmental behaviour show that images that are vivid or easy to imagine or recall are more available to memory and are assigned more importance. If you can think of it, it must be important. If it evokes a strong feeling it must be important, for example, ‘I’m not putting this in the bin because I will have to touch it, it’s filthy!’ With items like fresh chewing gum, spilt takeaway food and dog poo, the overall sense that most of us have is that they’re, well … ick. And we would be reluctant to pick them up, or even to lift the lid of a very icky bin to put something inside.


People may routinely litter certain items through habit. Because they‘ve repeated a particular behaviour hundreds if not thousands of times, it’s been mentally reinforced to the point where they don’t even notice they’re doing it. Through repetition, these unconscious behaviours become imprinted in the person’s neural pathways and are so entrenched they’re very resistant to change. Rituals around smoking (including the way people dispose of butts) are very common because they’ve been repeated in a consistent context so often. The chewing of gum is also a well-entrenched habit for many people, as is its disposal on the footpath, on the top or edge of bins, or under seats and tables.

Conflicting preferences

Everyone has multiple goals, desires or preferences, some of which may outweigh others in importance or urgency. A desire to keep a place clean may outweigh a desire not to have to make the effort to walk 30 metres to the bin, so the desire for lack of effort outweighs the desire for a clean environment, even though both preferences may be strongly held.

Conflicting preferences mean that in practice, people may not do the right thing, even though in theory they want to.

5 Wildcards

Our observational studies clearly show is that disposal behaviour can vary according to the type of public place people are in and the type of item people are disposing of.

Type of Place

People tend to be much more likely to litter in some types of public place than others. They are more likely to litter in places like public transport stops (bus, train and tram stops) and railway easements. They are much less likely to litter in parks, at markets and outside public buildings and monuments compared to other public places like shopping strips, malls, beaches and waterfront areas. These differences aren’t ‘rules’ but tendencies.

There are often location-specific reasons for these differences. At a bus stop for example, people may not be allowed to eat food once on board the bus, and so they litter once it arrives. Because it’s common for one bin to be located at the entrance to a long bus station area (physical feature of the place), this means that although most people would prefer not to litter, this is outweighed by the threat of losing their place in line or missing out on a seat if they take the time to walk back to the bin (conflicting preference).

Type of Item

Over and over again in our projects, we find cigarette butts to be the item most likely to be littered in all types of public place. All other items disposed of in public places are more likely to be put in the bin rather than littered. Our studies of cigarette littering behaviour show that where special attention has been paid to providing well located butt disposal options in clean, well maintained areas, butt littering rates can be halved.

There are many other examples of the physical characteristics of items influencing people’s disposal behaviour. For example, an item may be small and difficult to pick up if dropped, or highly packaged in numerous layers and hard to handle (physical feature of the item) or thought of as organic and therefore likely to break down easily (incorrect personal belief).

Want to know more?

Buy the book Litter-ology: Understanding Littering and the Secrets to Clean Public Places

Or Download Chapter One for free.