Oh I do like to bin beside the seaside…

Written and researched by Niki Langlois; edited by the Behaviour Change team

One Monday in May, we headed down to Weymouth to install a littering intervention we called ‘Nans of the Nation’ — testing whether being observed by figures of affection or authority has a significant effect on littering. We were met with some of the classic features of the UK’s much-loved seaside towns — a broad esplanade along a sandy seafront, complete with Victorian facade, harbour and shopping streets.

Weymouth — thanks to the hard work of its waste & litter teams, and the majority of people who bin their rubbish — already feels very clean, but being there refreshed our curiosity to explore the specific challenges that seaside towns in the UK face when it comes to littering. Littering is an endemic problem all over the UK and it’s often linked with other challenges, including transience, deprivation, public health issues and poorer outcomes across the board.

When it comes to littering, behavioural science shows us that we typically adapt our behaviour to the cleanliness of the area we find ourselves in. The majority will use bins in clean environments, but a minority are more likely to litter in less clean environments, since existing litter is a cue that littering is acceptable, and suggests that your act will go unnoticed. Litter isn’t the only indicator here, either — vandalism, crumbling buildings, and deserted streets all contribute too. This is the well-known ‘broken windows’ theory.

When it comes to the material environment, UK seaside towns face a unique context because of their history and the continuing significance of tourism, including features like promenades, piers, parks, amusement arcades and hotels. While this creates an enchanting built environment, it comes with challenges. Tourism is, as we all know, highly seasonal and fluctuating — plus, leisure areas are simply more likely to attract litter in the first place, because they have high footfall and contain commercial outlets that produce litter. High winds make dropped items hard to catch, collect and measure. Additionally, since the decline of tourist activities in the 1970s, UK seaside towns have become more vulnerable to other forms of environmental deterioration, thanks to the changing nature of the holiday trade.

Although factors underpinning littering are difficult to disentangle, research has found that areas with more indicators of deprivation have significantly worse levels of cleanliness. There could be many reasons for this — alienation, feeling disenfranchised, not feeling a sense of ownership for an area, being tired or stressed, and being more likely to live in high-footfall areas in the first place could all be contributing factors. Research in 2020 by KBT found that so-called ‘high obstruction housing’ (dense residential areas) have the worst levels of litter, and these are more prevalent in less affluent areas.

The evidence is also clear that it’s more challenging to dispose properly of items when we’re tired, stressed, or distracted. This phenomenon is known as noise — circumstantial interference in our decision making processes — and is the subject of Daniel Kahneman’s latest book with Olivier Sibony and Cass Sunstein. But, reciprocally, seeing litter also has a direct effect on our mental state and quality of life, creating a feedback loop that can go either way, worsening or enhancing our wellbeing. Most of us can think of a special, beautiful place that inspires peace and contentment, or being somewhere that made us feel a sense of disgust (neglected public toilets, maybe). So it isn’t hard to imagine how the sheer sight of a littered environment, particularly if it’s day after day or near where we live, can make us feel frustrated, angry or alienated. Sure enough, this is a feeling that 81% of British people reportedly share.[1] Research has shown that street-level ‘incivilities’ like litter directly increase anxiety and depression in the local population, and perception of these problems locally is predictive of lower wellbeing. Concerningly, this effect may be exacerbated for more vulnerable groups: evidence shows that litter is particularly problematic for elderly people. Meanwhile, a looked-after environment directly fosters social integration and physical activity, both of which enhance our mental health. Creating appealing public spaces most definitely starts with freeing them from litter — and, crucially, working with litterers to create a sense of community care.

In sum, many seaside towns face specific environmental and socio-economic challenges, and these, in turn, have various effects on the wellbeing of residents and visitors. Our question is, then, to create effective social and environmental change with regards to litter in seaside towns in the UK, shouldn’t littering be tackled in a more integrated way? Excitingly, there has been an outpouring of enthusiasm for looking after our local, and indeed global, environment in the last year. While CPRE’s report on litter in lockdown firmly confirms what we all suspected about a massive rise in littering, our anecdotal observations also suggest that the number of people involved in grassroots clean ups and sustainability activities has rocketed, and that more and more local authorities in the UK are working closely with residents to create partnerships around litter and environmental quality.

[1] Populus. (2015, May). Public Perception on Litter in the UK

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