Why do people drop litter, and what are we doing about it?

I was wondering about this for a long time before I started picking it up myself. After a few weeks of picks, and noting which areas get littered the most, I started doing a bit of research.
Littering is, if you think about it, a natural behaviour. As soon as humans began using tools, when an item was beyond use and could not be sold on or re-used in some manner, it was discarded. Other tool using animals, like crows or chimpanzees, do the same thing. An entire science (archaeology) is mostly based on humans’ tendency to litter. And this was OK when the population was relatively small and the items being ditched were made of things like stone, wood or leather.  
Therefore, in the West, littering was more or less socially acceptable, but it gradually became socially unacceptable from the 1950s. It’s thought that the iconic 1970s Keep America Beautiful campaign (featuring, unfortunately, an Italian actor playing the part of a native American) did a great deal to make the casual dropping of litter morally wrong. I also think, but don’t have any direct evidence, that this period also coincided with the moment our trash was no longer decomposing as it used to, because people were buying more disposable things (look at the history of the razor!), the population had increased, plastic packaging had become more commonplace and therefore littering became more visible.
Most of the research points to a few clear conclusions about littering (NB: most has been done in the West, but the work done in developing countries seems to point the same way):
  • Only a minority of people litter.
  • There are two types of littering: conscious (e.g. dropping a cigarette on the ground once it’s finished) and unconscious (getting up from a park bench and leaving your coffee cup behind). One could also include accidental littering (e.g. taking keys out of a pocket and dislodging a tissue). It’s much easier to deal with the conscious kind.
  • Cigarettes and cigarette related items make up the vast majority of litter found in most places.
  • Both positive and negative signs (Keep Our Area Beautiful and Litterbugs Not Welcome) are equally effective.
  • Social enforcement, such as by challenging litterers directly, reduces littering.
  • An area with one prominent piece of trash attracts less litter than one that is completely clear:  obviously, a very littered area attracts the most litter of all.
  • People litter less on windy days, because the wind naturally “sweeps” up trash into piles, suggesting that giving an area a “swept” appearance reduces littering regardless of the weather.
  • Men are more likely to litter than women; people who are strongly religious litter less than the modestly religious; young men litter the most of all.
  • Broken glass is a major source of injury when people (usually children) fall in the street.
  • Litter bins, and regular waste collections reduce littering behaviour (sounds obvious but our local council clearly disagrees as they have removed many of them).
We’re applying what we can to our current litter picking adventures. We are ensuring that our chosen areas have high latency, that is, they remain litter free for as long as possible, by having a zero tolerance policy. We are putting up signs and labelling fly tipped items to see if this reduces the overall occurrence. We try to be quite visible when we litter pick and engage with people as the research shows this makes them less likely to drop rubbish in the future. We also spend time puzzling about why dog owners put dog poo in bags and then just leave them on the ground.
Further reading:

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