Close Up Of Driver In Car Dropping Trash Out Of Window On Country Road

Litter is the burger wrapper thrown from a moving car, the plastic bottle left on the beach, and the cigarette butt dropped on the sidewalk. Improperly disposed garbage not only litters the ground. Garbage affects the oceans and the deputy general of the United Nations called marine debris “ubiquitous global problem”.

Why do people feel the need to throw away waste?

Why some people just can’t hold that burger wrap? Or stick a plastic bottle back in their bag? Researchers call it “littering behavior” and there are many reasons why people mindlessly throw away their rubbish.

Scientists are trying to learn more about littering behavior so they can transform chronic litterers and limit the amount of waste, especially plasticthat amazes the world’s waterways. Environmentalists say it’s a critical problem that’s about to get worse.

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Disposal behaviors

Any type of solid waste disposed of improperly is considered waste. This can be as small as a candy wrapper or as large as an abandoned car. In 2011research in Environment and Behavior observes people who throw waste in public places. The researchers went to 130 outdoor public spaces in 10 US states and observed almost 10,000 people as they went about their business.

When the researchers first arrived on site, they were tasked with assessing the cleanliness of the area and the availability of trash cans. Of the 130 sites, 91 percent had at least one trash can. Only two sites had no visible waste at all.

Field researchers note all “disposal behaviors” and whether people are improperly disposing of their trash. Improper disposal includes people who intentionally drop items on the ground and someone who didn’t realize they dropped something.

Of all the discharges, 17 percent were incorrect, and 4 percent of people qualified as bedbugs. So why did they do it?

Affordability was one factor. Researchers have noticed that people are more likely to throw away waste if they are not near a trash can. The more trash cans available, the more likely a person is to dispose of their trash properly.

People were also more likely to litter if they were in an area where there was already litter on the ground. A person at a freeway rest stop littered with cans and food wrappers was more likely to litter than someone in a maintained park.

The authors conclude that cleaning and maintaining a litter-free space is a preventive strategy to stop future people from littering. Providing easily accessible trash cans will also reduce waste. These approaches may motivate casual litterers to keep the area clean, but other studies have found that chronic litterers may not be compelled to change.

Read more: Americans are the number one contributor of plastic waste

The growing problems with garbage /Why do people feel the need to throw away waste?

People tend to agree this waste is harmful to the environment. But a 2023 study Ocean and Coastal Management found that people don’t think their problem is theirs to solve. Instead, they saw environmental issues as a larger problem that required a rethinking of consumer behavior through regulations such as banning the use of plastic bags or drinking straws.

Other people continue to litter simply because it feels good to be bad. One study found that people littered their work environment as an act of deviance from their employer.

Whether people litter to be naughty or hate having rubbish in their cars, global advocates warn the problem will only get worse in the coming years. In 1950, the world produced 2 million tons from plastic. By 2017, more than 438 million tons were produced each year. Only 10 percent of plastic is recycled, and the rest ends up in landfills or the ocean.

Unless governments regulate the production of plastic, the amount produced is expected to double by 2050, meaning the amount being disposed of incorrectly is also likely to jump.

Blame game

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The term “litter bugs” emerged in the 1950s after a group of corporations banded together to create the Keep America Beautiful (KAP) campaign.

KAP came along just as consumer waste and mobility increased. With the increase in cars and the creation of a national highway system, people had thrown glass bottles or paper napkins from overtaking cars. Some historians claim the bed bug concept was intended to shift responsibility for environmental damage away from the corporation and onto the consumer.

KAP developed public service announcements that educated people on how littering harms the environment. The message resonated with some people, but did not motivate others to change their ways.

Read more: How much trash is in our oceans?

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