Why do some people litter?

It annoys me when I see people throw things out of their car windows or when I see things like plastic bottles and containers strewn on sidewalks. Litter makes the environment ugly. It does not take much effort to not litter. You just keep the waste item until you reach a trash can. So why do people casually toss things away in public places, even sometimes when there is a trash can nearby? Some researchers are studying why people litter as part of an effort to reduce the practice, and find that there are multiple reasons why people do it.

In 2011, a study in Environment and Behavior observed people littering in public places. The researchers went to 130 outdoor, public locations in 10 U.S. states and watched almost 10,000 people as they went about their business.

When the researchers first arrived at a site, they were tasked with evaluating the area’s cleanliness and the availability of garbage bins. Of the 130 sites, 91 percent had at least one trash can. Only two sites didn’t have any visible litter.

The field researchers made note of all “disposal behaviors” and whether people incorrectly disposed of their garbage. Incorrect disposal included people who intentionally tossed items on the ground and someone who failed to realize they had dropped something.

Of all disposals, 17 percent were improper, and 4 percent of people qualified as litterbugs. So why’d they do it?

Accessibility was one factor. The researchers noticed that people were more likely to litter if they weren’t close to a garbage can. The more trash bins available, the more likely a person would dispose of their trash properly.

People were also more likely to litter if they were in an area that already had trash on the ground. A person at a highway rest stop cluttered with cigarette butts and food wrappers was more apt to litter than someone at a manicured park.   

The authors concluded that cleaning and maintaining a trash-free space is a prevention strategy to stop future people from littering. Making trash cans readily available will also reduce litter. These approaches can motivate casual litterers to keep an area clean, but other studies find chronic litterers might not be compelled to change. 

People tend to agree that litter is bad for the environment. But a 2023 study in Ocean & Coastal Management found that people didn’t feel it was their problem to solve. Instead, they saw environmental issues as a larger problem that necessitated an overhaul of consumer behavior through regulations like banning plastic bag use or drinking straws.

Other people continue to litter simply because it feels good to be bad. One study found that people littered in their work environments as an act of deviance against their employer.

It makes sense that litter can be part of a vicious or virtuous cycle, in that if there is litter already present, people are more likely to throw stuff away while if the place is clean, people are less likely to do so. I know that when I am in a place where there is litter around, although I still hold on to trash until I find a can, I do so with the resigned feeling of ‘why do I even bother’? I can understand why people do not bother in such situations. But the idea that littering can be a deliberately chosen transgressive act baffles me since the target of such actions is not clearly identifiable.

Someone I know went on a trip to Japan recently and when I asked about her impressions, she replied that she was struck by how clean the public areas were, even in the big cities.

I am curious as to how these practices vary by nations.


  1. OverlappingMagisteria says

    I remember seeing a car pulled over on the side of the highway, just dumping a bucket of garbage out. I can sort of understand throwing a soda bottle out of the window out of laziness. But this seemed to actually take more effort.

  2. maggie says

    Some litter is caused by people who walk their dogs and don’t pick up the poop. I spoke to one person about his habit of leaving dog poop behind and he seemed to think he was just too good to have to clean up his dog’s mess. I also see little bags of poop left behind on the side walk around town. What the heck? Just sheer laziness, I think.

  3. johnson catman says

    re maggie @2: Anyone who refuses to pick up their dog’s poop 1) is not qualified to own a dog, and 2) should wake up every morning with their own lawn covered in dog poop (or their living room if they don’t have a lawn).

  4. Steve Lion says

    “people littered in their work environments as an act of deviance against their employer.”

    I live in a rural area, along a dirt road that runs through a very large park. One of the neighborhood persons organizes a naborhood trash pickup about once a year. I do participate, but I know from past performance that I, personally wouldn’t likely take the initiave to be an organizer of such an activity. I do however stop occaisonally and pick up particularly egrigeous examples of littering, usually after having driven past them 2 or 3 times, I suppose to see if someone else will do it first.

    The amount of trash we pick up at the yearly trash pick up event is really quit amazing. I can’t estimate it in tonnage but it usually will fill 2 or 3 pick-up truck beds, every year, year in and year out. Now to the point. It never fails that the very nest day after the trash pick up event there are always multiple spots where trash has been tossed out of a car, and it continues daily till next year and then starts all over again. I’m convinced that the “act of deviance against their employer”, in this case it’s likely “the man” plays a big part in it. It’s not a place where trash cans are available and there’s no foot traffic so it’s oviously trash thrown from vehicles, that could likely more easily tossed on the floor board of the car and “disposed of properly” at a later date. Yeah, sure!?

    Well, that’s all I have to say, it’s certainly a lost cause at any rate.

  5. says

    Litter? Dogs? I wish. The rural roads around here are filled with horse excrement because the local Amish will not pick it up and there are no ordinances requiring them to do so. I have seen piles of the stuff in the parking lot at the Aldi’s I frequent. It can be downright dangerous for bikers and runners who are then forced to ride/run in the middle of the road to get around it. And to make things more fun, they do not use any form of “slowing moving vehicle” warning such as orange triangles or flashing lights. And they are indeed slow moving. I’d estimate no more than 5 MPH because I’ve run past them from time to time.

  6. birgerjohansson says

    Why are some people assholes?
    Because they get away with it.
    It is easiest to find examples in politics.
    Trump got away with *everything* …
    until he became president. And he was unable to change his mindset.

    Why did he disband the group tasked with preparing for a (then) hypothetical pandemic? Because he could . There was no profit in it for him.

    Why was Boris J a lazy idiot who did not even attend the government COBRA meetings? Because he got away with it.
    Why was he too lazy to read the material prepared by specialists about the pending COVID pandemic?
    Because he got away with it.
    Do not only fear the corrupt or stupid, fear the lazy ones (although there is a substantial overlap).

  7. mordred says

    I live at the boarder of two rural districts. In my district you got two free pickups of big garbage like furniture per year. In the next district, each pickup costs money.
    On my side of the boarder you are much less likely to find furniture dumped in the forest.

  8. Trickster Goddess says

    went on a trip to Japan recently and when I asked about her impressions, she replied that she was struck by how clean the public areas were, even in the big cities.

    Even though litter is rare, you will be hard pressed to find a public trash can anywhere in Tokyo. After the sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway in the 1990s the government responded by removing all public trash cans. People adapted by just carrying their trash with them until they got home or stopping by a convenience store where trash and recycling bins are available.

    Really puts to shame those Americans who are too lazy to walk a few steps to drop their litter in a bin.

  9. billseymour says

    I think birgerjohansson @6 got it right:  “Because they get away with it.”  It also could be the case that “getting away with it” makes the powerless feel empowered (a more general version of “an act of deviance against their employer” quoted in the main post).

  10. moonslicer says

    Ireland proves that change is possible. When I first arrived in this country almost 40 years ago, the amount of rubbish lying around city streets was appalling.

    But the state cracked down on the practice, and things are completely different now (at least in the places I commonly go). Not all changes have been 100% positive. E.g., rubbish collection has been privatized, which means the cost to each household has increased enormously. The private boys have to make their profit, right?

    It also gives the private companies the right to decide whose rubbish will be collected and whose won’t. Not terribly long ago, when we moved into a rented house, I checked with the rubbish company in advance to make sure that they serviced that area. They told me they did. Then later on they changed their minds. They didn’t service that area after all. So there we were, just having signed a contract on the house, with no legal means to dispose of our rubbish. We had no choice (since we don’t have a car) but to hire a lad with a van to collect our rubbish for us and take it down to the dump. We weren’t the only ones doing that. But the practice is illegal. Only registered collectors can collect rubbish. But we had no other option and we just had to hope we wouldn’t be caught until we could get out of the house. (We didn’t get caught and we’re out of that house now.)

    Generally, requiring all houses to be signed up with a collection service will go a long way towards solving the problem. Also, you see very few public litter bins around, since some people might take advantage of them to get rid of their household rubbish. I think the main factor was just raising people’s awareness of the issue, and this country is a lot cleaner than it used to be.

  11. Tethys says

    Littering is far more common if the litter bug thinks that nobody can see them. Studies have shown that people are less likely to litter in the presence of any sort of watching face, even on statues or signage.

    Just yesterday my city finally came (after three weeks of complaints) and removed the full size bed frame that some pigs simply left abandoned in the street after moving in the middle of the night. People kept “ helpfully” putting it in my yard and I chucked it right back onto the shoulder because dammit, it’s not my trash or my responsibility.

    I have begged my city for trash bins for all the garbage that passing vehicles and pedestrians throw on my boulevards, and hide in my hedge.
    They laughed, and offered me a bin which I would have to personally arrange and pay for any collection.

    I already pay property taxes to city, county, and state, so I refuse to pay to remove other peoples trash from my property. It already annoying that removing said trash is a daily chore, or it simply attracts more trash. Most of it is recyclables.

    I found it far more cost effective to prune the hedge so that the litterbugs don’t feel hidden
    from view.

  12. brightmoon says

    I never allowed my kids just toss litter down . But I have had neighbors who’d encourage their children to do that . I’ve actually seen them slap the kids’ hands to get them to drop the trash on the sidewalk 🤯. Like WTF dude!!!?!?!?!

  13. Jazzlet says

    The thing I find strange is the effort some people put into littering. In the UK local councils are legally obliged to provide “recycling centres” (inverted commas as they do also take materials that can’t be recycled), so when we had to get rid of a very old, very dead sofa we could take it to the recycling centre. In order to do so we obviously had to load it into a vehicle, to dump a similar sofa on waste ground you would stilll have to load it onto a vehicle, why once you’ve done that would you then choose to take it anywhere other than the recycling centre? Especially as most of these centres are set upp so you are tipping down -- far easier than level tipping. Locally it does now cost you according to the weight of the item, but really not much, but people were tipping big items in all sorts of places besides the recycling centre when it was entirely free. And you are reminded about the recycling centre every year when you recieve your “which bins are collected which weeks” calendar for the next twelve months.

    I know one reason is that there are illegal outfits that will take any waste for a low cost and then dump it where ever they can get away with it, but I doubt they are putting the effort into moving a waste object any distance from the road, which some peole do put in.

  14. birgerjohansson says

    The relative absence of dog poop compared to one generation ago shows how conduct can be changed for the better. Provoded there are places to put the garbage.

  15. Matt G says

    Why do some people “roll coal”? It’s giving the middle finger to society, or at least some parts of society they resent. It’s the same kind of thinking as: “I’m going to do it because you said not to” (or vice versa).

  16. RSimons says

    A stretch of sand dunes in the UK is a nature reserve but it also fronts the nearest beach to a major city and had a major garbage problem. Many years ago the local naturalists’ club produced a series of information leaflets on, for example, why the dunes were there, the plants, sea shells, birds, etc of the area and distributed them to visitors. The amount of garbage and the damage to the dunes both dramatically reduced. It seems that once people realized the value of the place, they took a lot more care.

  17. lanir says

    I guess it doesn’t really surprise me that people will litter casually. If people can equate wearing a mask during a pandemic with giving up on having a free country then they’re obviously willing to dive down all kinds of crazy rabbit holes. Compared to that, doing something you think is convenient for you even though it has unknowable future consequences seems kind of minor. If they fail at achieving that convenience it’s probably just another example of people failing to think things through.

  18. says

    Taiwan has a huge problem with littering. There are few public garbage cans, and smokers throw the non-degreading butts into storm drains which end up in the ocean.

    The attitude of the selfish worldwide can be summed up in two statements:

    1) “It’s just one!” (i.e. the fallacy of composition).
    2) “Nobody saw me do it, so it’s okay!” (i.e. anonymity and behaviour).

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