It’s been a few weeks since I talked to Scott Garibaldi about the litter situation on Duncan Avenue. I knew that the Department of Public Works had met with him after that blog post, and that they spoke with him about improving services. Checking in with him this evening, he said mostly what I had expected: “Even though things have gotten better, it is still not enough to keep up with the severity of the situation.”
Thinking about this persistent problem made me curious to do some research and talk to some people outside of Jersey City, outside the direct mix of personalities and particulars of our area, to hopefully get a fresh perspective on this problem. After all, litter is a issue everywhere; cities throughout the US have all come up with their own programs and ways of dealing with it.
Nobody gets a PhD in litter strategies (at least, no one I could find), but there are related fields. I found Dr. Rosemary Wakeman, the Coordinator of Urban Initiatives at Fordham University, through a friend who suggested I speak with her. And by way of an article about litter and what communities can do to help with it, I also found Justin Travis, who is a specialist in Industrial Organizational Psychology and instructor at several colleges/universities. Wakeman and I spoke via the phone; Travis and I emailed each other. Here’s what I found out from speaking with them.
I first started by asking the simple question: why do people litter? To this, Travis had the most specific and direct answer. He divided it into first, “dispositional predictors,” such as:
- Values – clearly some people hold values that drive their environmental behavior. For instance, it is likely individuals who hold values such as protecting the environment, caring about others, and community concern are going to be less likely to actively litter.
- Attitudes – Attitudes toward the environment are predictive of littering behavior, as attitudes are strong predictors of intentions and intentions are predictive of actual behavior (all else held constant). Additionally, attitudes toward groups (neighborhoods, classes of people, etc.) are also indicative of littering behaviors since holding a negative attitude toward a particular group can disinhibit someone who may otherwise not litter. This could be considered a type of interaction between attitudes and environment – say someone is driving through an unkempt neighborhood where the driver holds negative opinions about the residents. That driver, who normally doesn’t litter in their own neighborhood, may be more likely to throw trash out the window since “these people don’t care about their community anyways.”
- Age – younger people are more likely to litter
- Personality – People that are more conscientious (dutiful, organized, careful, dependable, etc.) are less likely to litter.
What’s most relevant to us (because they’re things that we can have the most control over) are his list of “situational predictors.” The immediate environment someone is in has a big effect on whether or not they litter:
- less likely to litter in clean environment (litter begets littering)
- farther from receptacle/disposal = more likely to litter
- presence of authority figures = less likely to litter
- Get people to make small commitments (signing petitions, agreeing that litter hurts the community and environment) that are pro-environmental. This facilitates their later behavior that is congruent with the previous behavior.
- Make the importance of a clean, healthy environment salient around the community. The principle of social proofing suggests that people feel social pressure to conform to others, particularly those they see as similar to themselves. Thus, if a community members perceives everyone in the community as being committed to and valuing pro-environmental behavior, they are more likely to adopt this behavior as well.
Many thanks to Gina Vergel for her help with this article.