- Fact Sheet
- Parent Guide
Why Do People Litter?
Litter is misplaced, improperly handled waste. In a three year research project, Keep America Beautiful, Inc. found that people litter for one of three reasons. They feel it’s acceptable to litter because:
- where they feel no sense of ownership for the property;
- where someone else will clean up after them;
- where litter has already accumulated.
From Where Does It Come?
Although motorists and pedestrians are most often blamed for litter, Keep America Beautiful, Inc. identified sources that contribute to the problem. They are:
- uncovered vehicles;
- loading docks;
- commercial refuse sources, including dumpsters;
- household trash handling;
- construction/demolition sites;
From these sources, litter is carried in every direction by wind, water, traffic, and animals. It moves until trapped by a curb, wall, fence, a row of trees, a building, or other stationary objects. Trapped, litter becomes not only an eyesore, but an invitation for others to litter.
In recent KAB research, 15% of individuals sampled reported littering in the past month. In 1969, 50% admitted littering. While littering rates have declined in the past 40 years, individual littering—and litter—persists. Littering is primarily the result of individual behaviors. About 85% of littering is the result of individual attitudes. Changing behavior is the key to preventing litter. Nearly one in five, or 17%, of all disposals observed in public spaces were littering. Most littering behavior - 81% - occurred with notable intent. This included dropping (54%), flick/fling (20%), and other notable intent (7%). About 15% of littering is affected by the environment meaning the appearance and setting of an area. A strong contributor to littering is the prevalence of existing litter. Most littering occurs at a considerable distance from a receptacle.
According to KAB research at the time of improper disposal, the average estimated distance to the nearest receptacles was 29 feet. The observed littering rate when a receptacle was 10 feet or closer was only 12%, and the likelihood of littering increased steadily for receptacles at a greater distance. Trash receptacles including dumpsters are widespread, while ash receptacles are less common. Of the sites observed, 91% had trash receptacles, but only 47% had ash receptacles and only 2% had recycling containers. 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.
To make a difference and prevent littering:
- provide sufficient trash, ash, and recycling receptacles;
- littered environments attract more litter so ensure consistent and ongoing cleanup efforts;
- use landscaping, improving the built infrastructure, and ongoing maintenance to set a community standard and promote a sense of personal responsibility not to litter; and
- use awareness and motivational campaign messaging that highlights social disapproval for littering and a preference for clean communities (don’t show littered areas which reinforces rather than discourages littering behavior).
The Cost of Litter
Litter is a costly problem. City, county, and state highway departments spend millions of dollars and many hours each year cleaning up litter—money and time that could be used for more necessary services. Cleaner communities also have a better chance of attracting new businesses than those where litter is commonplace. Additional information is available at www.kab.org.
Keep America Beautiful’s Top Ten Tips for Preventing Litter
There are many ways that you can help make your community cleaner. Here are 10 suggestions:
- Set an example by not littering. Carry a litter bag in your car or put litter in your pocket until you find a container.
- Pick up one piece of litter every day.
- Teach others the proper way to dispose of trash. Show them the difference between a clean area and an area spoiled by litter, and stress why it’s important to put trash in proper containers.
- Make sure that your trash cans have lids that can be securely attached. If you have curbside trash service, don’t put out open containers or boxes filled with trash.
- Ask your neighbors to join you in cleaning up a public area where litter has accumulated. Ask your local government to become involved by collecting the bags of litter, or by waiving the disposal fee at the landfill or solid waste facility.
- Tie papers in a bundle before placing them in a curbside recycling bin. Loose papers can be blown out by the wind as can other recyclables. (Check local requirements and share information with neighbors.)
- If you or a member of your family is involved in a civic group, scouting, or recreational sports program, encourage the group to become involved in a cleanup. In some communities, groups can earn cash by separating recyclable products from litter and redeeming them. Have the group “adopt” a spot and maintain it on a regular basis.
- Find out how you can plant and maintain flowers along a curb or sidewalk. People litter less where areas have been beautified.
- Ask business owners to check their dumpsters every day to make sure tops and side doors are closed. If the business has a loading dock, ask them to keep it clean, and to put out a receptacle for employees to use.
- If you own a construction or hauling business, make sure your trucks are covered when transporting material to and from sites. Use fencing around construction or demolition sites to prevent debris from being blown into other areas. Put trash containers at the site and on every floor for construction workers.
Good Character Habits
A habit is an action or pattern of behavior that is repeated so often that it becomes typical, although the person may be unaware or does the action without thinking. These behaviors are habits. Some of our habits are considered good, such as buckling our seat belts, and some of our habits are considered bad, such as biting our nails. Some of our habits have an impact on the environment. Habits that hurt or harm the environment are considered undesirable.
Littering is an example of an undesirable habit that hurts the environment. Littering behavior is the act of tossing or dumping garbage or waste in an unauthorized place. KAB research asked respondents the likelihood they would litter five different types of litter (apple core or banana peel, gum or candy wrapper, food container, gum, and cigarette butt), across three different location types (out a vehicle window, on the ground while walking to a vehicle or transit area, and on the ground when at a park or outdoor area). In the litter characterization study, visible roadside litter was found to have decreased by about 61% since 1968. Similarly, the results from the nationwide telephone survey showed that 15% of Americans reported littering in the past month, down from 50% in 1968. While habits have been changed litter continues to accumulate. Character is the aggregate of features and traits that form the individual nature of a person. Character features and traits may include responsibility, respect, caring, and citizenship. These may influence whether someone does or does not have the littering habit. Our character is largely influenced by our habits.
- Introduce the topic of habits by asking students the following questions:
- Do you do any of the following things without thinking about them?
- Do you bite your nails when you are nervous?
- Do you chew on your pencil when you are thinking hard?
- Do you look both ways before crossing the street?
- Do you buckle your seat belt when you get into a car?
- The Sport Bug – This litterbug loves to attend all types of sporting events and cheer on the team. In between cheers, this bug samples every type of food from the concession stand, and leaves a pile of food wrappings under the seat.
- The Movie Bug – Every Saturday night, you will find this bug at the local theater, enjoying the latest movie, and littering beverage cups, popcorn, and candy wrappers.
- The Traveling Bug – This bug is constantly on the go. When traveling in a car, this bug can be seen continually throwing items out of the window (another favorite pastime).
- The Park Bug – A nature lover, this bug loves the beautiful outdoors. When this bug leaves the site littered with the remains of their snack, this bug is surprised to find the site is not as pretty as they originally thought, and they vow to find a better spot for the next visit.
- The Bad Aim Bug – This bug makes a game out of throwing trash in the trash can and gets one point if the toss is good and hits the trash can. This bug figures misses don’t matter and there’s always next time.
- The Boating Bug – Every weekend that weather permits, this bug heads out in the water. This bug likes to see which items will float and which will sink as items wrappers and containers are tossed from the boat.
- “There was already litter there.”
- “Who cares? I don’t live there.”
- “It was only one little piece.”
- “The trash can was too far away.”
- “They pay people to pick up this junk, anyway.”
- “I didn’t litter, the wind blew it away.”
- Get the facts
- Involve the people (students)
- Make a plan
- Focus on results
- Provide positive reinforcement
- Have students name an action that is a good habit and helps keep our communities clean.
- Have students explain how they would convince litterbugs to change their littering habits.
- Have students visit www.kab.org to learn more about why people litter in the Litter Research section.
- Develop a video presentation of the litterbugs that will convince people not to litter demonstrating what to do and not to do with trash. Show the video to other students. Enrichment
- Play charades. Have each student act out the good habit chosen.
- Develop a “Caught In the Act – Good Character Program.” Each time educators or students “catch” someone disposing of trash or recycling properly, reward them.
Young children learn about the world around them through the use of their imaginations through pretend play. It is important that they be provided with a variety of opportunities to help develop their imaginative play. They learned about the importance of not littering and that we can all do our part to keep our world free from litter. Try some of these activities with your child.
Explore your neighborhood
Take time to visit people who work in your neighborhood. Visit a fire station, a police station, a library, a grocery store, or a pizza parlor. Introduce your child to these people and ask them to talk to your child about how they dispose of their waste.
How many trash cans, recycling containters, etc. can you find in your neighborhood? Home? Stores?
Visit a library
Take your child to a public library and have him/her select a book on garbage trucks, landfills, recycling, reuse, or litter prevention.
Trace (or help your child trace) around your child’s hands. He/she can color them with crayons or markers. Ask, “How many fingers do you have?” “How do you use your hands to help put trash in its place?” Display the picture. (The refrigerator makes a good display area).
Make an instrument
Ask children to think about alternative uses for items to encourage them not to litter. What could they use a paper cup for? To make a shaker (maraca), put dry beans, rice, buttons, or pennies in a paper cup. Cover with a piece of construction paper or wax paper. Secure with a rubber band. Shake gently while marching or singing.
To make a guitar, use an empty tissue box that has 2 or 3 rubber bands stretched lengthwise around the box (and placed over the hole). Attach a toilet paper or paper towel cardboard tube to one end of the box for the guitar neck. Strum the rubber bands and sing a favorite song, “This is the way we throw our trash, throw our trash…“ (Tune of: The Wheels on the Bus).
Creating with boxes
Try to find a large appliance-size box (be sure to remove any staples). Encourage your child to use his/her imagination to have the box become any number of things—car, boat, train, etc. Have them simulate putting litter in its place and not on the ground, water, etc.
Talking to your child about littering and putting trash in its place will help you to be aware of what your child understands, and determines how he/she can help.
- What does littering mean? What does biodegradable mean?
- Is it littering to drop an apple core on the ground?
- What would happen if everyone littered?
- Tell me how you can do your part in putting waste in its place.
Good books to read together
Take turns reading. Read a story to your child, and then have your child “read” it to you!
- The Three R’s: Reuse, Reduce, Recycle by Nuria Roca,
This book describes the ways in which kids and their families can avoid waste and be environmentally conscious.
- Why Should I Recycle? by Jen Green, Barron.
This book addresses the question of what if everybody threw away old bottles and newspapers, littering the world with glass and plastic.
- I Can Save the Earth! by Alison Inches, Simon & Schuster.
Your child can follow Max the Little Green Monster’s journey to environmental awareness and learn tips on how they can become little green monsters themselves.
- Recycle! A Handbook for Kids by Gail Gibbons, Little, Brown Books for
This informative book explains the process of recycling from start to finish.