Why do people litter?


It’s hard to escape it in the Middle East–loads of garbage lining the streets, blowing across the desert, and covering the beaches.  I was surprised at how shocked and outraged I was the first time I saw people casually throwing large bags and empty bottles out their car windows–we are fairly well-indoctrinated in the States against that sort of behavior, outside of smokers who still toss their butts on the ground.  I try to carry a plastic bag with me to the archaeological sites I visit so that I can pick up at least some of the trash, but it feels pretty futile.

Like any good anthropology nerd, I started doing a little bit of research.  I realized that while we research trash exclusively as archaeologists, there isn’t a whole lot about modern attitudes toward trash beyond William Rathje’s Garbology.  (As a side note, Rosemary Joyce mentions the excavation of Spoerri’s “Lunch Under the Grass” over on the Berkeley Blog – I have to look into the project!)

In the journal Waste Management–and it thrills me beyond all belief that there is such a thing, I mean, they have articles on food waste as a peat fuel replacement and the physico-chemical and calorific values of poultry manure! Pure gold!–there is an article on solid waste management in Jordan by H.A. Abu Qdais cites the increase in population and life-style pressures combined with lack of funding from individual municipalities as exacerbating Jordan’s problems, especially in large metropolitan areas.  Still, this does not explain behavior in a very satisfying way.

In Fall of 2008, Keizer, Lindenberg, and Steg published a fascinating study in Science about disorder, crime, graffiti, and the Broken Window Theory.  As it is taught in most intro Sociology and Anthropology classes, Broken Window Theory (or BWT) is a familiar concept, introduced by Wilson and Kelling in the early 1980s and used in the 1990s to clean up New York.  Basically, if there are existing signs of neglect or vandalism, more neglect and vandalism will follow.  This concept has been hotly debated in social science ever since.  The Science article, The Spreading of Disorder, describes six field experiments that specifically test the BWT, providing high correlations between visual (and audio!) disorder and the increase in bad behavior, including littering and even theft.  So if you are surrounded by garbage already, according to this article, you are much more likely to litter.  Indeed, you are more likely to behave poorly in general!

This all seems a bit too easy though.  Richard Sampson’s publication Disparity and Diversity in the Contemporary City: Social (Dis)order revisited (freely available!) claims that these perceptions of disorder are contextually shaped by social conditions and that “Seeing disorder…is intimately bound up with social meaning at the collective level and ultimately inequality.”  In other words, if signs of disorder are not perceived and evaluated negatively, it’s not seen as a problem.  So it’s possible (maybe even probable) that the trash just isn’t seen in the same negative light.

I would be more inclined to believe that had I not witnessed the constant maintenance of the sidewalks in front of shops by shopkeepers.  They are always sweeping and spraying down the sidewalks, pushing trash into gutters. So could it be a differing perception of personal space and civic responsibility? Now we’re getting back into the realm of archaeology.  Hodder’s classic The meaning of discard: ash and domestic space in Baringo describes differing discard patterns among the Baringo in Kenya and how discard is linked intimately with social interactions. (PS: Hodder, you have lots of students, assign one of them to link your publication off-prints to your webpage–it’s the nice thing to do.)

This has gotten too long for a blog post and I want to go for a swim, so I’ll try to wrap it up.  How would we stop people from throwing trash around? Would more trash receptacles help? A nation-wide campaign like Don’t Mess With Texas, the incredibly successful 1980s anti-litter slogan that everyone outside of Texas thinks is just another expression of Texas machismo? Better drinking water so that everyone doesn’t constantly use bottled water?  I’m not sure.

Any ideas?

Author: colleenmorgan

Dr. Colleen Morgan (ORCID 0000-0001-6907-5535) is the Lecturer in Digital Archaeology and Heritage in the Department of Archaeology at the University of York. She conducts research on digital media and archaeology, with a special focus on embodiment, avatars, genetics and bioarchaeology. She is interested in building archaeological narratives with emerging technology, including photography, video, mobile and locative devices. Through archaeological making she explores past lifeways and our current understanding of heritage, especially regarding issues of authority, authenticity, and identity.

7 thoughts on “Why do people litter?”

  1. If we stopped throwing trash around, then what would future archaeologists have to dig up? After all, much of what we find in the field (well, maybe not at yr fancy huge sites) is trash, whether it’s early twentieth century broken dishes or 10,000 year old lithic debitage.

    Also, I got to help the natural resources people with a Phase One Environmental Site Assessment while in Oklahoma a couple of weeks ago, and dump sites is one of the features we document. Of course, most of the farms/ranches in the area have at least one dump site in the headwater of a drainage out yonder, since this is much more convenient and cost-effective than hauling it to the landfill.

    Maybe I’ll do my own blog post about this tomorrow…

  2. Your description sounds very much like modern Mexico. I used to ponder over the trash left all over the place, in contrast to homes and the public spaces in front of homes and shops that are kept very clear and clean.

    Just getting the trash picked up by the municipal garbage trucks can be a chore – their schedule isn’t regular. A guy walks the streets five minutes ahead of the truck, ringing a bell. You have to be there personally to take your trash to the truck – there are no outside cans or bins. So if no one is home during the day (out working, at school, or at the dig), you are out of luck. I remember how pleased I was years ago when neighbors suggested we pay local kids to take the trash; that worked fine till we started wondering what they did with it. They were dumping it into a nearby ravine. City officials started putting big dumpsters around the city for people to bring their trash to. That was ok, although they didn’t dump them frequently enough, so they overflowed making an awful smelly mess. There was one near the place where our students were living one year; I could dump the trash and pick up the students in a single trip!

    There is clearly regional variation in Mexico – Cuernavaca, a tourist town that used to be our base, is much cleaner than Toluca , an industrial town with few tourists where we work now. We have noticed this in terms of street trash, graffiti, and dead dogs along the highways.

    I think I gave up puzzling over Mexican trash years ago. It’s just part of life in Mexico. I don’t have any answers, but I do like the different perspectives you suggest, and I’d be interested in finding a reasonable explanation for the phenomenon, in Mexico and elsewhere.

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