Thinking outside of the box about littering

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
This speaks to some basics that our community has been asking for for years – more garbage cans, help from the city cleaning when messes occur, and more of a community policing presence.
But I thought it was most interesting when I asked both experts what their ideas would be for making the situation better. Dr. Wakeman suggested a “flash activity” that could be “mediatized” to get maximum attention. It’s important for people in the community to feel as though the public spaces they pass through include them and that they feel a part of them – this leads to a sense of responsibility and inclusion. She suggested some sort of act that could help involve people in the community to beautify the space. People will want to keep a place clean that they helped to make pretty in the first place.
Strangely enough, I remembered this random occurrence from a few years ago. I was shocked to discover that I had saved a picture on my phone, as it really was more than two or three years ago. Anyone remember this?
Back then, we have a major problem with people throwing out chicken bones in the park, on the sidewalk. It was the weirdest thing – and really troublesome since they can be a choking hazard for dogs (also, no one wants their kids playing near a big pile of chewed up chicken bones). So someone took it upon themselves to do this – they wrote it on the sidewalk in multiple locations throughout the park. When the rain washed it away, they wrote it again. I remember I took the picture because I found the phrase “thrown your bones in the trash” so wonderfully emo and poetic, and really a little funny. But here’s the thing: that hasn’t been a problem since that person did this. Once these chalk statements started appearing, the chicken bones vanished.
Could something like this – a simple slogan, written in chalk – really change something as complex as littering? Probably not… but what if it was a really beautiful chalk drawing asking people not to litter? What if we got a bunch of neighborhood kids to help out with it? I mean – it can’t hurt to try, right? The only cost is that of some chalk and an afternoon of drawing on the sidewalk.
Meanwhile, Travis also had some interesting ideas:
  • 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.
The first of these two really struck me. What if we had a Girl Scout troop (or some such group – staffed by cute kids overseen by an adult) go around to people in the neighborhood and ask them to sign a pledge not to litter? Who could resist such a thing? While they’re out there, they’re spreading information that it is our community standard to not litter, and also getting people to make a promise. Again, it strikes me as something that is worth a shot, doesn’t cost anything, and definitely won’t hurt.
None of these suggestions replaces the help we need from the city in keeping our streets clean. We still need garbage men to pick up after themselves when a bag they’re hauling rips; we still need dozens of additional garbage cans that will be emptied regularly. We still need, in short, for the city to do their job. But maybe some of these suggestions will help us to figure out what we can do in addition to all of that, to make our community a nicer place to live.
(As a final note: if you know of any local business that needs to be reminded of its responsibilities to our neighborhood, here is a link to a bilingual sheet explaining their responsibilities, and also a link to the official DPW brochure on what they need to do. Please share with them.)

Many thanks to Gina Vergel for her help with this article.

Justin Travis cites the following sources for his remarks:
Cialdini, R. B. (2003). Crafting normative messages to protect the environment. Current directions in psychological science12(4), 105-109.
Schultz, P. W., Bator, R. J., Large, L. B., Bruni, C. M., & Tabanico, J. J. (2013). Littering in context: Personal and environmental predictors of littering behavior. Environment and Behavior45(1), 35-59.
Steg, L., Bolderdijk, J. W., Keizer, K., & Perlaviciute, G. (2014). An integrated framework for encouraging pro-environmental behaviour: The role of values, situational factors and goals. Journal of Environmental Psychology38, 104-115.