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Can a sense of fun help to cut litter?

Most people believe that dropping litter is a disgusting habit, yet levels of littering have not changed during the past 12 years.

Dealing with the problem costs tax payers around £850m a year. People are most annoyed by litter from fast food packaging which, in the past year, has increased by 20%.

Cutting litter is fundamentally a question of changing behaviour. A fast food wrapper goes from being a useful way to hold something to eat to a piece of litter simply because people do not put it in the bin.

Hubbub is a new charity taking a fresh look at environmental challenges. It is testing the best approaches from around the world for persuading people to stop littering.

It selected busy Villiers Street, next to London’s Charing Cross station, as the basis for a six-month social experiment to learn what interventions could work to shift collective behaviour. The impact is being independently measured and the results will be shared. Campaign group Keep Britain Tidy was commissioned to undertake the research.

The aim is to use the latest academic thinking to try a range of approaches. Can creating a sense of fun persuade people to use the bin more – a newly commissioned talking bin from the Netherlands offers a range of amusing asides when people use it. Can games persuade people to not throw chewing gum on the floor – people are encouraged to put pieces of chewing gum on to a piece of artwork to make the face of a famous resident. If they guess who it is, they can win a night in a prestigious London hotel.

What happens if we make it easier for people not to throw things on the floor? Hubbub has partnered with new social enterprise Gumdrop to put recycling collection points in the street for gum, which is then transformed into a range of products, including shoes. Does building a sense of pride in the community change behaviour – there is a street gallery full of photos of people who live and work in the area, telling their story.

The first set of observations discovered that 31% of people in the street litter. This increases to a staggering 62% if you include cigarette butts. Most littering occurs in the evening and late at night when the percentage of people who litter increases to 72%. The main littered items are cigarette butts, chewing gum and fast food packaging.

This research is being used to refine Hubbub’s approach. It is talking to fast food suppliers about how they can reduce littering, introducing campaigns aimed at cigarettes and testing new ways to reach the night economy. Its collaborative approach involves local stakeholders from Westminster City Council through to local residents.

The experiment will end in October and results will be ready by the end of the year. The hope is that local authorities and waste contractors will use the information to inform their own campaigns. To make it easier, Hubbub will make available all the collateral it has created – such as the talking bins – for organisations to use in their localities.

Reducing littering requires the active involvement of a wide range of stakeholders. Funding for the pilot scheme has been raised from the private sector including companies such as Veolia and Lucozade Ribena Suntory, as well as trade organisations such as Incpen, whose members wish to address the challenge collectively. The hope is that this model is a way of sharing the financial burden of cutting litter.

Hubbub believes the government needs to step up to the mark because currently it has no coherent strategy on waste. The charity has brought together organisations to create a national litter manifesto at http://bit.ly/ E8c3vW, and sought to increase media coverage of the problem.

Hopefully all the activity will act as a catalyst for a fresh approach to fighting a very stubborn problem of high public concern.

Trewin Restorick is the founder of Hubbub

Find out more at: www.hubbub.org.uk, @hubbubuk and @trewinr

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