Friday, December 23, 2011

Predictors For Littering Behavior

Over the years I’ve learned through scientific research how a very few people can drive a significant problem, so I wasn't surprised when I read some new research on the behavior of littering.

For instance, during my now-concluded career in community marketing, only a little more than 11% of the residents of Wake County where Raleigh, the state’s second largest city is located have a negative or very negative image of Durham, where I live.

But those 1 in 10 who are negative generate enough noise to make nearly 30% of the population in that adjacent county believe that, based on the way people talk, they would expect a negative experience in Durham. They also create apprehension in another 30% and tranfer those impressions to businesses seeking to relocate to Durham and to visitors to Durham arriving through the jointly-owned airport and even via news reports.

Similarly with litter, a very small percentage of people can drive a problem that has serious consequences.littering study

During 2008, for a report published in 2009, Action Research used observations, intercepts and telephone interviews to help Keep America Beautiful unwrap and target the behaviors behind littering.  In one segment researchers observed nearly 10,000 individuals across 130 different locations divided across 10 different states evenly split between rural, urban and suburban settings, including 30 different cities, and nine different types of locations including fast food, recreation, gas stations, city centers, rest stops, medical/hospital, restaurants/bars, retail, etc.

Even though more than 90% of the locations had trash receptacles located in plain view, 81% of the littering occurred with notable intent.  Four percent of the individuals observed were litterers and another 17% disposed but improperly.  Overwhelmingly individuals held the view that littering is wrong, even those who had just been observed littering.

Only two variables emerged in the findings as statistically significant predictors of littering, 1) availability of disposal receptacles and 2) the amount of litter already present.  The second of these is a wake-up call for officials in Durham, North Carolina, where I live.

Possibly lulled at some point in the past by the incredible levels of Durham resident pride, satisfaction, and image of their community, officials began to neglect general upkeep of roadsides and medians and public buildings and spaces.  In time the neglect became a standard operating procedure betrayed only by how well maintained the southeast part of the community encompassing Research Triangle Park and the nearby jointly-owned airport remained.

However, officials back then and since may have failed to account that litter is not just generated by residents, but also by 3 out of 5 people working in Durham, who are nonresidents and there are another 6.9 million visitors to Durham each year.  It is widely known that even individuals who are diligent about litter at home can be much less so when away from home, especially when litter begets more littering.

But most importantly, this now institutionalized permissiveness of neglect failed to reckon that neglect such as litter leads to other problems such as signaling to petty criminals that no one's in charge and even providing a screen behind which major crime can fester.

The lesson is that a very small part of the population can generate a  problem which has serious consequences such as litter, if not addressed. One of the nicest presents officials can give the residents of Durham in the new year is the resumption to best practices of the general upkeep of roadsides and public spaces to best practices.

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