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The Psychology of Littering - What's Going Wrong?

If you live anywhere near an urban centre, you notice garbage (trash) littering sidewalks, parks and along major roads. Why? What is so difficult about "putting litter in its place"? If you're anything like me, you find it an ongoing source of frustration and annoyance. We know that the problem is not just an aesthetic blight; much of it ends up in rivers, streams, the ocean ... where it can do severe damage to wildlife. Much of our waste, packaging etc. takes decades or more to break down. Even the deepest known part of the ocean--The Mariana Trench--has been found to contain garbage (Gizmodo, 2016).

This, of course, wouldn't be such an issue for wildlife and the environment if we didn't create materials that are essentially non-biodegradable, taking up to thousands of years to break down. Until we do, it is imperative we tackle the problem at its source: human behavior. The reasons for littering may be found in human psychology.

Robert Cialdini, emeritus professor of psychology and marketing at Arizona State University and author of Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion gives the following analysis (The Atlantic, 2014):

One of the things that’s fundamental to human nature is that we imitate the actions of those around us,” said Cialdini, who has conducted a number of landmark studies in littering and litter prevention—all of them pointing to the fact that people are likely to do what they think is expected of them. It’s about norms and expectations, he says: Change these, and you’ll change people's behavior.

In other words, it is about marginalizing, not normalizing, undesirable behavior such as littering. Those that trash their environment have come to see it as acceptable, either from taking cues from current or former authority figures, or noticing the prevalence of trash in their surroundings.

Cialdini argues that the results of his studies demonstrate that people are sensitive to what they see as normal behavior, and they’ll change their behavior to adapt to what they see being done around them.

Let's call this the "carrot" approach. It makes sense that human beings' desire to fit in shall have a conforming effect when it comes to waste disposal as well. In my view, it is about time that we "took off the gloves" if you will, when it comes to this menace. For the "stick" approach we can turn to the impeccably clean Singapore. Hitting would-be litter bugs where it hurts really is effective (Go Abroad, 2018):

First time offenders who throw small items like cigarette butts or candy wrappers are fined $300. Those who throw out bigger items like drink cans or bottles are considered defiant and are required to appear before the court. The punishment usually involves a Corrective Work Order (CWO), where the offenders clean up a specified area while wearing a bright luminous green vest. The CWO was implemented in the hopes of making offenders realize the hardship cleaners have to go through to keep the surroundings clean, and to make them understand just how unsightly litter is. It is also admittedly aimed at publicly shaming the offenders to ensure that they don’t regress to being a litterbug again.

Note the dual-impact of cleaning up a mess while also being publicly shamed; marginalization, not normalization, to prevent recidivism. Observers will surely be more inclined to be inconvenienced and find a suitable receptacle for their waste than take the chance of being caught. This is not to mention fines for repeat offenders that reach up to $10,000 (The Straits Times, 2015).

We all hope for the arrival of perfectly biodegradable waste and packaging products; in the meantime, no-nonsense measures that ostracize the litterbug materially and psychologically are our best chance for clean, green surroundings.



Gizmodo (Misra, R.) 2016. "Even The World's Deepest Trench is Full of Garbage Now" [online]. Last accessed: 20.06.18.

Go Abroad (De Veyra, D. M.), 2018. "Singapore: Laws to Know Before You Go" [online] Last accessed:

The Atlantic (Wagner, V.) 2014, "Littering and Following the Crowd" [online]. Last accessed: 01.07.18

The Straits Times, 2015 (Khew, C.) "Current Measures against Littering" [online]. Last accessed:


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