Campaign History & Research

Research Behind the Litter Campaign

AFF conducted in-depth social research starting in 2008 to better understand attitudes towards littering, what motivates people to litter, and what deters them. We have incorporated this knowledge into the Initiative by using it to guide our efforts and inform the development of our Regional Litter Prevention Campaign materials. In order to insure the success of the Campaign, we continue to conduct research into the effectiveness of our efforts to reduce the amount of littering in the Potomac River Watershed.

The initial research conducted in 2008 looked both at the attitudes of the general public and litterers towards litter in the Potomac River Watershed. As a baseline, 1,000 residents were polled to better understand their attitude towards litter.  In 2010 more surveys were conducted, including a series of focus groups;, 700 person DC-wide public opinion poll; and interviews with 50 businesses to get to the root of littering behavior and examine existing attitudes. This research can be examined in full depth in the OpinionWorks report, “Why People Litter in the Potomac River Watershed” found here.  After the initial surveys, one-on-one interviews were conducted by Noral Group International, which included in-depth psychological analysis of these admitted litterers.

Research Findings:

  • People litter to keep their personal space clean: “I’d still just toss it out the window (of my car) because of the smell.”
  • Personal space is a very narrow zone that does not extend to the neighborhood or the community. Personal space does extend to family and children however.
  • They see their behavior having little impact as well as benign:  “If I do toss anything it’s like a small wrapper. Something no one notices because it’s so small.”
  • Evidence that there is a more complicated picture of gratification for many litterers. There is often an underlying sense of loss, abandonment, disappointment. Throwing trash becomes a means of coping because anxieties can be replaced in the moment with a sense of autonomy or control, even a rush.
  • People strongly connect with the health implications of litter. The words “Filth,” “bacteria,” “toxins” all resonated with litters. It was a powerful realization that the Potomac supplies the region’s drinking water.

Noral Group International interpreted this research to create an overarching campaign message and brand.

KEY MESSAGE:  By choosing to take care of trash, I am protecting myself and my family’s health, happiness and safety

SUPPORT: Improperly disposed trash contributes to filth, disease causing bacteria, and toxins harmful to you and those you love

OBJECTIVE: Overcome unconscious rewards and desires to dispose of trash (outside their own backyard) by helping trashers feel empowered and important as caretakers for those they love.

This key message was translated into an empowering campaign message, “Take control. Take care of your trash.” An additional message line, “Your litter hits close to home”, was created to impact the place that was found to be most important to litterers–their personal space. The supporting message became “piece by piece, litter adds up and makes the places we go everyday unsafe and unhealthy.”

The focus groups with admitted litterers found realistic images, particularly those with children, more impactful than abstract or exaggerated images. The images produced with this message include children playing in a sandbox, playground, and soccer field; as well as hiking in the woods with typically littered items.