Rural System's

Preventing and Controlling Litter

Preventing and Controlling Littering

Extreme littering may be vandalism. It, along with vandalism and theft, can be called depreciative behaviors. Litter is misplaced solid waste, from discarded cigarette butts to abandoned autos. "Place" is important. The paper cup in a waste basket is the same cup along the roadside, but one is letter. The rusty auto in an open field is different than the same auto in a junkyard.

Litter prevention and control can be part of a solid waste management plan.

Litter removal on public lands costs taxpayers over $500 million a year (USFS, 1976). There have been changes and some successes but attention needs to be given to it on all wildlands. Education, persuasion, penalties and fines, and litter receptacles have had limited success.

Realizing the threats and concerns may help a few people avoid littering:

A 1976 US Forest Service procedure seems to work and some aspects of it can be implemented on the area. Called an Incentive System, it, in revised form, is as follows:
  1. Clarify objectives -
  2. Minimizing costs can include closing the area to use.
  3. Thank past users (generally) for keeping the area clean (signs and leaflets and introductory education materials)
  4. Provide disposal devices (cans, etc.) near likely "toss" sites.
  5. Work with local governments to provide for garbage and related pickup services to reduce spill-over problems, dumping, and to reduce local litter-picked-up disposal costs
  6. Work with vendors to reduce plastic bag use, provide for and encourage proper disposal, and increase use of bio-disposable wrappers and containers.
  7. Note and discourage littering based on the "pest problems" with improper disposal of the content of packages (as well as the packaging).
  8. Have groups of children (age 6-12) assembled, permission gotten from parents, instructed, show potential rewards, and then return after a pre-set time to give them rewards for picking up trash, bottles, etc.
  9. Rewards can be an arm patch, booklet, etc. Give rewards, not for amounts of litter collected but for participating. Let children chose from several rewards such as patches, pins, badges, bumper stickers, book covers. Others may be taking people on a nature walk, visiting a special site, see equipment at work.
  10. Promote a "Pick it up and Pack it Out" slogan for those who use the area.
  11. Do not let litter get out of control. Not cleaning up and seeing litter seems to encourage others to litter.
  12. Plan litter cleanups after storms and floods, reducing widespread nature-related littering that can be claimed as an excuse for personal or group littering.
  13. Uniforms or symbols are useful for those instructing or requesting pick-up work.
  14. Careful. Payment for pickups can produce people littering for gaining the pickup payment (invisible dye on some items can discourage this)
  15. Attitudes about littering may not prevent some people from littering, so "attitude surveys" may suggest little.
  16. The visibility of staff seems to reduce littering in some areas. There is need to clarify expected behavior for the visitor, the need to pick-up, the need to dispose properly. For some, knowing the cost of clean-up can prevent littering.
  17. Be aware of the stadium effect, the assumption that someone will cleanup after the group leaves a site. This can be done in personal contacts, brochures, and requiring deposits at the time of application or use (as in apartment rental, an amount returned after a quick inspection showing the site is clear of litter)
  18. Monitor the waste stream in gross ways to be able to evaluate the effects of techniques and practices used. The practices are cumulative; the waste stream should show a reduction in the stream after each change, not cessation. Measure, implement strategy, then measure to get the change.
  19. Consider alternative uses and disposal of the waste stream (energy, salvage, composting, erosion control); alternative haulage costs.
  20. Work with loggers and other crews to provide for proper disposal and pickups of oil cans, lunch wrappers, etc.
  21. "Litter doesn't fly away, it just moves over" --- emphasis of efforts against sailing light-weight plastic bags and wrappers.
  22. Do long-term studies - one technique may have time specific or delayed effects.
  23. Continually adjust the system to achieve the objective and reduce costs

Exploring the system for solutions

There are in some areas, enormous rural littering problems. enormous problem. Geller may have solutions. Vandalism is not the same as littering ... but close.

One approach is to "go positive" and instead of anti-littering, try to develop an EQ Index Strategy. We can spell this out weekly in the newspaper and in brochures. It is an effort to enhance or increase the EQ Index in the county or region. EQ stands for Esthetic Quality. We ignore littering behavior and hope it subsides (like pain after a fall) and try to focus attention on the beauty of the county (as we might as caretakers on potential behavior after the fall). As we work on the whole EQ, litter just naturally become one of the things we think about and tend naturally. We report a weekly EQ index (like a community forest fire hazard index on 2-3 community greens or crossroad signs in the county). We report an annual county score for the capital-letter EQ index and challenge surrounding counties for a picnic or something for the one who gets the best score by some stated date. This will be a wind-shield survey and quick and low- cost for the weekly score. We can get outsiders, impartial folks, to make the final evaluations.

We need to hand out "I'm from XXX County and we're improving our EQ " playing card size cards. These are collectibles. We can change some of the titles, find someone who will fund this and add their name for advertising. We can add a slogan whenever we want such as "returnable bottles build the EQ." Kids can collect cards or even whole decks of cards (11 per pack). (Nothing significant here, just the approach ... constant involvement, fun ... do something vs. don't do littering)

Geller spoke of antecedent behavior can influence 20% success! We can form a membership, an EQ club, and have digital photo contests, poem contests and awards, pictures of clean spots in the paper, speech contests related to beauty, an emblem, a big bandana contest (one or more especially printed for our purposes with EQ), with county name and picking -it-up, getting it all together, and other positive and fun slogans ... multiple colors for various prizes ... we make the club and its mission conspicuous. We can use membership fees to help clean up spots ... and show the finished spots, not the usual pictures of dumps. The purpose ... to provide rewards and other incentives for not littering and later ... in other ways beautifying or reducing decay and ugliness within the county. I imagine a future about large sculpture, house painting and repair, sign ordinances and other issues of viewscape management and services and gardens all of which only makes sense if the place is fairly litter free. The conditions of the average mine site and dump over the hillside of the abandoned strip mine do not inspire much "cleanliness" elsewhere. Along with related rural programs (e.g., sporting shows) we can hand out pocket cards and that say things like

Why EQ. 'cause litter kills animals, its a fire hazard, it catches water just right for West Nile virus skeeters, and its a safety hazard, and it devalues your land, and its costs you for others to pick it up. 'Nuf said? Join in the County's EQ Strategy" Email us at xxxx

We love our county's beauty! We're not asking you to pick it up; just don't make us do it to increase our county EQ

(with pictures of cute children and EQ club meetings )

We can make worm composting a project within EQ clubs.

We can keep a count of bottles along a measured mile and report and watch the trends. The university there might be encouraged to try for some real studies. I'll help seek grants and try to be of help.

We can get a GIS map of "seen areas" from all roads in the county (and human density or travel counts likely related to the roads and use this as the area of our work (vs. the area of the county) with concentrations in select areas and monitoring of progress in some areas. This will attract attention and be convincing that we are high technology and using the investments made in GIS for the county. We have to find a way to make a reward ... at least praise users of road stretches for litter-freeness ... maybe a window sticker or a window flag (like seen at sporting events) for all inhabitants of an area that is very clean for a month.

The local newspaper or TV will probably go along with a weekly picture of a really clean pretty spot off a road in the county, but I think we can resist the before-and-after shot ... staying positive (even if it is tough and a fairly radical change.) I do hope you will consider it.

The trash bins scattered throughout the county need advertisement (a map in the newspaper, rules, and attention to dumping when full. I've seen in other counties negligent government action modeling negligent citizen action.We have to go after the old guys with the results of Geller's work ... people follow people they respect ... old guys need to model desired behavior. We can make this a special program and add special contacts ... making the special members of the EQ club, etc.

We need a talking trash can. See the fire-fighters "dog in a fire truck "in Blacksburg. Great for children. This can be big at meetings, fairs, all public gatherings.

Don't use threatening signs.

We have to find the major sources and give them numbers and a rating ... movies, burger places, etc.. We can even study for brief periods whether people will bring in trash if we pay them for a bag. (probably less than some other costs) At least we can keep it short and close it when we run out of the budgeted amount. Maybe local people will volunteer to cut hair or do nails or sharpen a knife for payment in bags or road litter.

Is a clear plastic recycle deposit place/option available for the county? Clear glass? Other glass? Cardboard? high quality paper? Who uses burning organics for heat source? Can they help us?

Will local police check prescription bottles found at dump sites and go after the people whose trash is so labeled? Will the courts go along with pickup and cleaning as community service for convicted people? We need to try to comprehend Geller's positions (as I understand them) and work directly with behaviors (maybe later, attitudes) see p.111.

we can build into the school system SOL units on surveying roads, measuring effects, weighing objects, and even use our wildlife equations on estimating the bottles, etc. that are in an area. Creatures crawl into these containers; biology students may love to make reports of findings to support our claim that litter kills.

I've done a web page on littering for forest planning and group may consider this (written for the large land owner). I hope it will be useful and of course I'll be glad to answer questions and comment.

We need a web site for the EQ group so that we can share ideas and approaches and at least claim that we are trying to be open to the public ... but this stuff is really quite complex and has much technical study behind it. We have to pick and chose from among the work. When we combine tactics, then all of the scientific proof goes away. We have to assume the role of the manager, thus will usually get kicked by the scientist.

See Vandalism Management


Clark, R.N., J.C. Hendee, and Robert L. Burgess. 1972. The experimental control of littering. J. Env. Education 4(2): 7p.

Geller, E.S., R.A. Winett, and P.B. Everett. 1982. Litter control (Chapter 3)p. 48- 112 in Preserving the environment: new strategies for behavior change, Pergamon Press, New York

Go to top of page.

September 14, 2004