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Talking rubbish: what makes people litter?

Psychologist Prof Paul Wesley Schultz believes it is more about the environment than the individual: people are far less likely to litter beautiful, well-kept areas

Overflowing Dublin City Council rubbish waste bin by the Grand Canal in Ranelagh, Dublin. File photograph: Bryan O’Brien/The Irish Times
Prof Paul Wesley Schultz: “Someone who is amoral or who does not really care about the environment or their surroundings will probably not litter if the right context is put in place, if they believe a particular area is beautiful.”

What makes a person throw an empty can on the street or dump a bin bag full of rubbish in a laneway or leave a rotting mattress on a playing field? Pure selfishness? Or do illegal dumpers and serial litterers simply not care?

While it is tempting to place all the blame on the individual, Prof Paul Wesley Schultz from California State University says finger-pointing misses the point and sidesteps the issues that must be tackled.

Schultz, who teaches courses in social psychology, environmental psychology, and statistics, has authored multiple papers on the problem of litter over years, so he knows what he is talking about.

Positively, there has been a “massive cultural shift” about what is acceptable today in the United States, compared to 40 years ago. “When I was a child in the 1970s, it was very common to see people throwing rubbish out of car windows on the highway. You don’t see that nowadays.”

But more must be done. However, the key to figuring out why one area is littered and another not lies in the area itself, and the way it is looked after by the community at large.

“I really don’t believe it is as much about the person as it is about the context of the environment they find themselves in,” Schultz says. “A moral or environmental person could easily litter if the context is there.

“On the other hand, someone who is amoral or who does not really care about the environment or their surroundings will probably not litter if the right context is put in place, if they believe a particular area is beautiful.”

Two-thirds of the solution lies in the context. Just one third is down to the individual. So what does Schultz mean by context?

Simply put, if an area is free of rubbish, and well-maintained, then it is considerably less likely to attract rubbish than a place where there are no rubbish bins and where waste has already piled up.

“That is your starting point,” he says.

Selfishness

He accepts there is a selfishness to the serial litterer as is evidenced by a thought process that makes some people believe it is okay to just dump rubbish on the ground that it is someone else’s job to pick it up.

“But my focus is on the practical,” he says. “I’m not here to point the finger of blame but to create solutions from a practical perspective and to do that we need to take a step back and see what can we do to change a context that makes some people think littering is okay.”

It is not “just about putting bins in the right places”, but about putting the right kind of bins in the right places. They need to be easy to use and clean. “Otherwise, some people will not go near them,” he tells The Irish Times.

More litter is found in poorer districts, he accepts, but litter is not a class issue, he cautions: “If you try and focus on class and point the finger at one particular socio-economic group, then you are going down the wrong path.

“In my experience, it is not that people on low incomes are more inclined to litter but that the areas in which they live have been allowed to accumulate more litter as a result of a poor infrastructure and a lack of investment and that brings it all back to context as opposed to the individual.”