How Packaging Can Reduce Littering

Littering 2.0

Every year, approximately $11.5 billion is spent cleaning up litter across the globe. Yet littering is still a problem, and a problem that humans are consciously aware of causing.

That was the thesis of Professor Wesley Schultz of California State University San Marcos who conducted a study on behavioral decisions around litter. After observing and interviewing nearly 10,000 people in the United States, the conclusion was that 81 percent of litter occurred intentionally. When people litter, they typically know that they are doing it.

Previous generations did not necessarily view litter as a potential problem. It was simply not top-of-mind. Over time, a behavioral shift has taken place. “It was almost unanimous,” Schultz claims. “We have gone from a time when littering was perfectly acceptable to a situation where it is widely viewed as immoral.” A shift that Schultz calls Littering 2.0.

Based on the findings from his research, Schultz advocates for more attention on waste removal infrastructures, rather than focusing only on education. His philosophy is: “If you want people to litter less, you have to make it easier for proper disposal.”

“Packaging manufacturers can also play a vital role in providing recyclable packaging and clarity. Removing ambiguity about what to do with packaging is a critical piece,” highlights Schultz.

He outlines a strategy based on three key points. One is beautification, or the need to clean up litter to avoid attracting more litter. Another is behavioral optimization, which involves making proper disposal of litter more accessible through improved waste collection and removal infrastructures. And the third and final point, is an awareness campaign to encourage people to use the disposal infrastructure. Without these three focus areas moving in tandem there will likely be people still setting down that coffee cup and walking away.

Schultz stresses that there has been tremendous success with litter abatement over the last 50 years, but that more needs to be done. Organizations such as Keep America Beautiful are using the findings from behavioral science to create litter prevention campaigns that work. “It’s the combination of beautification, making proper disposal easy, and publicizing the cultural norm against littering that seems to produce the best results,” says Schultz.

The Organization of Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) estimates that by 2020, humans could be generating 45 percent more waste than in 1995. However, with support for aggressive litter abatement policies and programs, Schultz is optimistic that in another 50 years, things could look dramatically different than they do today.

In his book called Moby-Duck, author Donovan Hohn estimates that every year between several hundred to tens of thousands of containers like the one carrying the rubber ducks are lost in the world’s oceans. On top of this, the oceans are flushed with casting nets left by fishermen or other waste from passing ships. However, according to the European Commission’s Environment DG, the majority (80 percent) of marine litter is in fact land-based1.

Sea debris is a global concern and can have huge impact on wildlife. Carried by the currents, litter can bond together and form patches like the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.

This debris field floats between California and Hawaii and is estimated to be the size of Texas, with 3.5 million tons of trash. Surprisingly, the Garbage Patch is practically invisible to the naked eye because it is made up of tiny broken-up fragments of debris.

Governments around the world have passed legislation to fight this threat, and industries are committed to finding solutions through initiatives like the “Declaration for Solutions on Marine Litter.” Signed in 2011, it is a six-point plan for action for the plastics manufacturing industry that was endorsed by 58 associations from 34 countries.

However, sometimes the simplest solution works best. Boyan Slat, a 19-year-old Dutch student, designed a system to clean the oceans passively. His project, called The Ocean Cleanup, takes advantage of currents and the sea’s movements. These currents allow plastic to concentrate before being extracted, by attaching an array of floating barriers to previously identified sea locations. The floating debris is collected in front of the barrier, while sea life flows underneath. This, along with other new initiatives, could help foster cleaner, healthier and more sustainable oceans for the future.

How much plastic is there really in the oceans?
Counting the number of plastic debris floating in the oceans may seem like counting sheep at night. It can be never-ending. But a group of researchers from the National Academy of Sciences in the United States recently published findings from samples collected during a 2010 cruise. They estimated the amount of plastic in the world’s oceans to be in the tens of thousands of tons, with 88% of the sea surface littered with debris. Most of it accumulates within the convergence zones of the earth’s great migratory currents.

Littering 2.0