For each type there are two categories: active and passive.
There are two kinds of littering: intentional and accidental.
Let’s focus on the intentional littering. Nothing much we can do to control cargo spills, catastrophic weather events, refugee migrations, the unintentional events when garbage can escape to litter the land and seas.
But there’s a whole lot we can do to control the kind of littering that’s deliberate, encompassing anything from a dropped or flicked cigarette butt or spat piece of chewing gum to the takeout packaging, beverage and coffee cups left behind or hurled on the go. The first and most obvious thing to say here is, just don’t do it.
Non-litterers do not litter. Full stop. They dispose of their garbage responsibly and properly. That’s not to say that they don’t accidentally litter from time to time. A tissue escaping from a pocket, a paper on the dashboard picked up by the wind and sucked out of the car window, an item that dropped, went wayward, was lost on the ground somewhere – occasionally this will happen to an avowed non-litterer.
The difference between an active non-litterer and a passive non-litterer is that an active type will pick up litter. Passive litterers don’t feel they should have to pick up any litter. They feel that job belongs to the people who put it there. Their rationale goes like this: “I don’t litter so I don’t see why I should have to pick up someone else’s.” It might also include a statement that picking up litter is “the city’s job.”
An active non-litterer understands that the only way to solve the littering problem is to pick up after others. There are several reasons why picking up is important. One, clean spaces are less likely to attract littering because “litter begets litter.” Two, being seen picking up litter is a direct way to influence the thinking and behaviors of others. This is the idea behind role modeling, that positive, active and visible engagement is influential.
Now let’s talk about the people who litter. The lowest ranked and least respected type is the active litterer. Fortunately, this group comprises a vast minority of people who litter – about 12 per cent. Not only do they litter and not care, active litterers would likely rudely refuse to correct their mistake if asked. They embrace a range of chronic littering behaviors from routinely leaving their take away packaging in the restaurant parking lot, or at the roadside, to wholesale dumping activities. Perhaps unsurprisingly, most in this group are young males.
Passive litterers are people who litter when it hampers their convenience or cramps their comfort. Lack of bins is one common excuse they use for littering. But unlike their active counterparts, the passive litterers will pick up litter when called on it. When their littering is pointed out to them, they will correct their behavior, then give one of several pat reasons that people give for their littering. They might apologize also.
It is a hopeful sign that 88 per cent of people who litter are willing to correct their littering when asked in most circumstances. At the very least they will hear critical feedback and allow it to register.
That’s why it is so important to speak up about littering in a nice way when you see it happening. Odds are, the person who litters will be embarrassed into compliance. Dare we dream that they learn something indelibly and accept that littering is wrong?
Now to the final leg of this theory: to solve littering we need everyone to move up a rung.
If you’re an active non-litterer, be more active. Pick up more. Report problems more. Speak up and teach more.
If you’re a passive non-litterer, make the incremental shift to active. Join a clean team. Pick up litter once in a while.
If a passive litterer, deem yourself a passive non-litterer: look after your own disposables responsibly. Use a bin. That’s all. You don’t have to pick up litter, just don’t create any.
And to the hardcore, active litterer, why not consider graduating to the role of a passive litterer? You may not be ready to use a bin or litter bag full time yet, but you could start using one when asked instead of getting angry.
This is my solution for lowering the rate of littering, which hovers around 40%.