In Litterology: Understanding Littering and the Secrets to Clean Public Spaces, Karen Spehr and Rob Curnow offer insight into the psychology of litter and study how people are influenced to litter—or not—based on the design of public places. As the Education Coordinator for Keep Chadron Beautiful, a large part of my position is to inform my community regarding the ecological risks surrounding litter and working toward community wide litter prevention. So, this book was right up my alley.
The authors, two environmental psychologists located in Australia, weight the book with a significant amount of data on the topic of litter, which makes for a very informative read. They also incorporate statistical information from their own well-developed study on how people make decisions such as using a bin, and/or littering. However, they share the information they have compiled in a way that is easily comprehendible for someone without a background in the science and psychology of litter.
Perhaps one of the greatest strengths of this book is how the authors place an emphasis on destabilizing pre-existing bias regarding who litters (they argue that people from every demographic litters relatively equally), and instead place the focus on what causes people to litter in specific places. By doing this, Litterology encourages the use of litter observation in public spaces prior to attempting to solve littering behaviors. For instance, while someone working toward reducing litter at a public park might be inclined to immediately add more bins to the location, through observation they might find that a band of rogue racoons is scattering litter across the space during the night. Once the racoons have had their fun, the lessened cleanliness of the park might increase littering behaviors in those who frequent the space. While the initial impulse, putting out additional bins, is a well-intentioned attempt at a solution, it wouldn’t solve the actual problem.
I was afraid that a book on litter might try to shame the reader out of the act of littering, rather than educating and informing in a way that helps change behavior. This fear was, thankfully, unfounded. Spehr and Curnow take great care to focus their book not on shaming people, but rather on how to develop spaces in a way that naturally, through the psychology of community and shared public spaces. They argue: “It hardly seems surprising that more bins, fines, or promotional campaigns fail to hit the park as one-off solutions to what is essentially a more complicated and long-term problem. Also, if you think about littering behaviors rather than litterers, it leads you to ask questions about what led to this behavior and what can be done about it” (Spehr and Curnow).
What can be done about it? Litterology offers insight into that as well. Perhaps the most significant insight into the psychology of littering behavior that I gained from this book, is that people are naturally inclined to keep beautiful spaces beautiful. If a place is clean, it generates a sense of community and there is a greater likelihood that community members will maintain that cleanliness through bin usage, or even picking up trash and litter that they did not themselves produce. In addition, Litterology names the various types of littering, from “wedging”, “undertaking”, to “clean sweeping”. By breaking down littering behavior into specific types, we can see, even more closely, how to work towards designing spaces that help break these littering cycles.
Litterology is not aimed at only the academic, it is intended for anyone with an interest in preventing litter and beautifying community spaces. Accordingly, the research is laid out in a way that can be understood by anyone, academic in the field and general reader alike. More specifically, while the authors’ main intent is to inform the reader as to psychological aspects of littering, this book is written in a way that it will appeal to those invested in city planning or general beautification of both outdoor and indoor spaces. The text does reiterate the main argument a bit too often for my taste. However, this recursive style of argumentation helps get the message across effectively. Litterology is an excellent addition to the library of anyone who is interested in understanding the psychology behind littering behaviors, and how we can all work to influence the creation and maitenence of beautiful public spaces.