‘Beacons of litter’ act as magnet for more rubbish 28 June 2017

New research by our Centre for Social Innovation has found the presence of large, brightly-coloured items of litter – crisp packets, bottles, chicken boxes and sandwich boxes – act as a ‘beacon’, giving others permission to drop their rubbish and that keeping areas free from these ‘beacons of litter’ reduces overall littering. 

The research is published today in the inaugural edition of our Journal of Litter and Environmental Quality.

Our ‘Beacons of Litter’ social experiment involved cleaning three areas in two locations - Stourbridge in the West Midlands and Stoke Newington in north-east London - so that they were completely free of litter, we then planted ‘beacon’ items in one location, other smaller litter items, including tissues and small pieces of paper, in a second and leaving a third area litter-free as a control.

We monitored the sites to see how people behaved and how much litter accumulated and the results were clear. The experiment was repeated six times over two weeks, with a total of 72 hours of observations monitoring taking place.

In places where the ‘beacons of litter’ were present, we found 35% of people littered their rubbish. In the areas where the smaller items were placed, that percentage fell to 22% and in the control, where no litter was placed, the percentage who littered was 17%.

We also discovered that people were more likely to drop ‘beacon’ items if other ‘beacons’ litter was already present - 41% of people observed dropped drinks containers, plastic bags and other ‘beacons’ items but this fell to just 11% in the ‘other’ condition and 10% in the control. 

The Journal of Litter and Environmental Quality is available to download now.