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Behavior Change
Case Study:
How We Changed the Behavior of Littering

Over the last few years, Shelton Group’s Pulse studies have tracked a decline in concern for several environmental issues — hypothesizing that some issues (such as climate change) have become highly politicized and that the country’s declining economy has given Americans more immediate worries to focus on. One environmental issue that has definitely bucked this trend is trash.

In our Green Living Pulse™ study, throwing trash out of the car window was the only environmentally related behavior that a majority of Americans (63 percent) would be very embarrassed to get caught doing.

People “get” this issue. It’s tangible. Hollywood makes movies about it (i.e., Wall-E). Children of the '70s have the PSA image of the “crying Indian” and Woodsy Owl’s admonition “Give a hoot! Don’t pollute!” burned into our brains. “Dispose of your trash responsibly” has become one of our nation’s cultural norms.

In our 2012 Eco Pulse study, almost 54 percent of Americans claimed they always recycle their aluminum cans, plastic containers, newspaper and cardboard.

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We know there’s a lot of exaggeration in these claims — the EPA estimates that only 50 percent of aluminum and 29 percent of PET plastic bottles and jars were recycled in 2010. But the fact that they’re fudging means they care.

According to Keep America Beautiful, the actual count of overall litter has decreased 61 percent since 1969. So what’s created this success? It’s taken 40 years of pushing multiple behavioral levers, including education and fines and making the desired behavior incredibly convenient.

Children’s perceptions were influenced in the '70s with well-executed PSAs (Woodsy is still around: His updated mantra is “Lend a hand — care for the land.”) and supplemental classroom curricula. Municipalities instituted fines for littering and began seriously investigating illegal dumping sites. Finally, curbside trash and recycling pick-up has become the norm. Green Living Pulse 2012 found that 60 percent of recyclers have access to curbside, mixed-bin recycling. If you make it easy, Americans are much more likely to participate.

What’s the next step for trash?

While littering is greatly improved, we must be vigilant. Littering is still a major problem, costing the nation some $11.5 billion each year, not to mention its affect on communities and the environment.

From a behavioral standpoint, a landmark study by Keep America Beautiful found that 85 percent of littering is attributable to individuals. Younger ones (under 30) litter less than older folks. “Surprisingly,” reports KAB, “gender was not related to littering rates; males and females were equally likely to litter.”

Along with continuing to target messages and campaigns toward young people, we should actively involve kids in cleanup and beautification activities to, as KAB recommends, “help to raise awareness about litter as an issue, and to increase their commitment to prevent litter.”

As a practical matter, we still have beer cans, soda cups and fast-food wrappers along the road leading into my neighborhood. Every now and then, the neighborhood association convenes a group of residents (almost all over 30) to collect it all in trash bags.

For longer-term results, our neighborhood association would be better served to enlist the youngsters, including the teenagers who drink the beer, in the cleanup days.

We can also build on the social norm that makes it embarrassing to get caught littering. The embarrassment factor may be one reason that busy highways are generally more litter-free than our residential roads, which offers moments of anonymity.

Manufacturers should also get involved. Almost three-quarters of our Green Living Pulse respondents thought that companies bear some/very much responsibility for the end-of-life disposal of the products they manufacture.

Specifically, almost 50 percent said that companies should offer take-back programs with drop-off at major retailers. And companies can get involved in initiatives to make sure their product containers are being put back into the recycling stream.

In other words, “Give a hoot! Take back your loot!”

For more insights on American attitudes about sustainability and how to change consumer behaviors, visit


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