Boulder, CO: The non-profit organization Keep America Beautiful (KAB) is involved in the reduction of waste and the beatification of communities throughout the country. KAB was founded in 1953 and has over 1,200 local affiliates in the US. Throughout the 60s and 70s seminal research was conducted by the KAB to determine littering behavior in the US. Today KAB is still continuing their littering research and has several notable findings. (Shultz and Stein, 2009)
According to the KAB, Littering in America: National Findings and Recommendations by Wesley Schultz and Steven Stein (2009), there are various reasons why people are inclined to litter from contextual variables to personal variables. Contextual variables can include the availability of trashcans, the accumulative impact of other litter in the area, and even weather. Personal variables include age, awareness, attitudes and feelings of personal responsibility. Stein and Schultz’s study showed that 15% of littering behavior had to do with the contextual demands and 85% had to do with personal variables.
Shultz and Stein found that variety of conditions seem to encourage or discourage littering in public places. Not surprisingly, the most commonly littered items found by KAB are cigarette butts, food waste, and wrappers. Food waste items such as food waste are more likely to be thrown out due to the misconception that they will biodegrade very quickly. A few of the personal variables that discourage littering are if people feel a connection with their community or have a strong sense of personal responsibility they are less likely to litter. Age was a factor as well, older people are less likely to litter than younger people. A contextual variable from the the report found that it appears that the presence of trashcans increases the likelihood that someone will dispose of their waste properly, as does a how busy or rushed someone is and cannot be bothered to throw away their trash.
A very positive finding from Shultz and Stein is that littering has decreased over the decades. A very similar study (sample size and methodology) from 1968 compared to the current 2009 Littering in America study, found that 50% of people admitted to littering in 1968 compared to only 15% of people in 2009.
Shultz and Stein's 2009 study and the 1968 study were conducted mostly in urban areas, but community parks were an area that was studied. Roadways, residential areas, and even loading docks were also observed and used in the KAB report, which are not areas that are outside of Leave No Trace’s scope. With that said, it is still interesting and important to understand why people feel that littering is okay and what variables affect their decisions. Leave No Trace is concerned with littering in the backcountry and frontcountry (any outdoor area close to the road) areas where people are traveling and camping. Leave No Trace’s third of the seven principals is dispose of waste properly which covers the proper disposal of trash as well as human/pet waste.
Thanks to Wesley Schultz, Steven Stein, and Keep America Beautiful for their Executive Summary: Littering in America.
Thanks for reading and remember to be like the Center’s mascot Bigfoot and Leave No Trace.
Pat and TJ - Subaru/Leave No Trace Traveling Trainer West Central Team
Leave No Trace’s Patrick and Theresa Beezley are part of the 2015 Subaru/Leave No Trace Traveling Trainer Program that provides free, mobile education to communities across the country. Proud partners of this program include Subaru of America, Deuter, Hi-Cone, REI, Smartwool, The North Face, and Yakima.