I am sure all of us at one time or another have taken a walk down a nature trail and found a bit of trash that stood out among the plants or on the path. More often than not the item is recognized almost instantaneously by its color scheme, shape or material combination – its branding.
We may be irritated by the unsightliness, we may not give it a second thought and meditatively and instinctively pick up the litter for proper disposal later, or we may keep walking. This time of year in a deciduous wood with only brown dried leaves on the ground, even a small item may stand out. Among more urban landscape the litter might just be part of the environs along the roadside or highway entrance. We may scarcely notice it while zipping by in our automobiles. Yet litter as a collection of transactions is quite complex and the pathways that result in the deposited item in places other than the trash bin are many. The composition of the litter too is quite diverse and context specific.
On a clear and cold Thanksgiving day, I wandered at sunrise and again at sunset in southern Virginia in place where the Staunton River once met the Dan River. The confluence of the two rivers now forms Kerr Reservoir. Here the ebb and flow of the waters bring in and take out all sorts of trash from big things such as tires and construction material to smaller more familiar litter such as branded beverage containers and assorted single use packaging. At the riverfront, these items stand out along the bank and amongst the riparian corridor often more strikingly than on the trail. And, here too, it’s clear that all these items were involved in very different transactions prior to their deposition along these two rivers, at least temporarily.
Some of the items probably arrived down the river from campgrounds upriver. Boaters and fishermen or hunters may have parted with others, accidentally or intentionally. All are likely to be transient as the currents move objects in and out of the crevices on the banks. Some may even flow out to the ocean and end up in the various trash gyres that are being discovered, documented, and studied.
Still, how much do we know about litter? Its composition, its magnitude in relation to material flow within the municipal solid waste (MSW) stream, the psychology and the demographics of the people involved in the transactions. How does litter fit within the Sustainable Materials Management framework? We know that the what ends up as litter varies based on specific location and the predominant activity of that location. For example, near busy bus stops there is often an abundance of cigarette butts, while in the inner cities there tends to be an accumulation of food service packaging and uneaten food discards, particularly in the vicinity of all night fast food establishments.
Below are some statistics from a 2006 study of roadway edge litter in the state of Georgia that provide a window into the constituents of the litter and a profile of the litterer. Of course, this probably doesn’t represent the nation, but still provides a useful lens to look through. The collected litter was characterized as deliberate litter (items likely to be tossed intentionally), approximately 34% of the total, or negligent litter (items that may end up as litter due to carelessness in storage or disposal), approximately 66% of the total collected items.
**Cigarette butts were not included due to minimum size limitation set in the study. However, a separate count was conducted in the sampled sites resulting in more than eight times the amount of all other litter combined in the study. Including cigarette butts in the deliberate litter chart above would make them to be approximately 96% of the total individual pieces of litter gathered.
Who are the litterbugs? They could be all of us, intentionally or accidentally. For more information see Responsive Management’s public opinion surveys on recycling and litter and other natural resources issues.
Of course, the problem of improper disposal of packaging and products in developing countries is enormous. A great deal of the problems here are associated with a lack of infrastructure and access to the services. The problem of waste handling is a complex one and many actors are actively working on solutions including GreenBlue and its Sustainable Packaging Coalition.
Litter is part of the bigger conversation about Sustainable Materials Management that GreenBlue pursues with all its work with various industries. Some of the behavioural problems associated with litter are likely to be similar worldwide to what we see here in the U.S., while others may be unique to cultural context. However, cell phones with GPS enabled cameras are prolific today, and they may be of use to map the litter with location and brand specific data. So, can we leverage the power of individuals with smart phones, GIS and the web to gather data about the how materials flow in various urban, periurban and rural areas? Sure we can. It requires cooperation and funding to structure a data repository into which any citizen can easily enter information via a web application. Brands have much to gain from reducing the stigma of their product packaging being portrayed as trash.
A country anecdote
Having lived in the inner city area of a large California city for years, I am accustomed to seeing litter in various predictable parts of town. Compared to the big city atmosphere of California, my current living situation, in the relatively rural Virginia, is quite different in the way litter transactions occur. Along the narrow single lane where I now live, there is a singular character that embodies the cartoon below.
This guy can be timed based on his empty Bud Light cans and at journey’s end, the 6-pack carton carrier. Unlike the cartoon character, our neighborhood yahoo has a knack for chucking his empty cans on the passenger side at about equidistant intervals from the local gas station minimart. The six pack is consumed on the drive home and the packaging is strewn along the path to eventually be picked up by owner of the houses where the litter settles. It is both humorous and irritating at the same time.
Humorous for me as I am on the driver side on Mr. Bud’s way home and also because this has become regular Friday evening programming, but understandably irritating for those on the passenger side who are relegated to picking up his litter. I am sure there is one such character in each of the countryside neighborhoods. Changing his/her behaviour is probably not as important as influencing the behaviour of those in the more populous places in the scheme of things. Two things are clear, our beer can-pitching friend has brand loyalty, and he does not care (or think about) whether that brand image is tarnished by his littering.
What part do brands play in all of this?
What roles can companies play to reduce the negative connotation associated with their part of the branded trash? Litter is a commingled and demographic specific issue requiring a multi-faceted approach involving cooperation and collaboration amongst traditional market competitors. Rising to the challenge can yield insight into brand loyal customers as well as enhance the brand’s ability to improve its sustainability position and communication.