In a 2010 article The Guardian asked whether litter-free festivals would be just around the corner. After all, there were reusable cups and recyclable tents. Six years on and we’re still hoping that litter-free festivals are around the corner. It feels like we are at the Silverstone circuit. There’s always another corner.
During a busy Bank Holiday weekend in Brighton, with several events taking place at the same time, litter surfaced in the streets almost immediately. So, that made me think. Why do people throw their rubbish on the street and not in a bin? Who is the first person to litter or leave rubbish behind?
According to data from 2015, UK councils spend close to £1 billion a year to tackle littering. That comes down to 30 million tons of litter that are collected each year in the UK alone. That’s pretty amazing. Especially if you consider that 86% of people think that littering is disgusting.
In 2015 Glastonbury festival cleared 5,000 abandoned tents and about 6,500 sleeping bags. Not to mention the 54 tonnes of cans and plastic bottles. Festivals are a form of escapism. But it seems that some people bring their real-life behaviour with them.
Encouraging Sustainable Behaviour is a report written by Lindenberg and Steg. In this report the authors discuss social norms and the so-called goal framing theory. Social norms, they write, have in common that we take them seriously. We disapprove of someone if they leave the social norm. There is also some kind of feeling that we have to live up to the norm. For example, my parents told me to be nice to other people. So that’s my norm.
As long as everyone lives up to the social norm we’re all good. That is where the problem about littering comes in. Not everyone is living up to that social norm. The report indicates that the impact can be huge even if only a small number of people break away from the norm. Norms work under social pressure but at the end self-interest always wins. So if 90% of your audience act according to the norm, it means only 10% of your crowd litters. But that 10% can have a huge impact.
Behaviour and attitude
So why do people litter? This is where the goal framing theory comes in. How we make our goals is based on our perception, thinking-process, and decision-making. When you are hungry or drunk, your goals change (hedonic goals). When you are with friends your goals change (normative goals). Or you make choices based on what will benefit you most (gain goal). Under different circumstances, you make different decisions.
These social norms and goals come into play when we talk about environmental behaviour. We all make decisions based on what we think is okay. I’m sure you’ve been at events where rubbish is flying around as it is picked up by the wind. Or a food court at an event surrounded by plates, cups and napkins. Why do we think that is okay?
As a kid we’ve all been told what is good and what is bad. So we know that littering is not good. Hence the 86% of Brits who think it is disgusting. Studies have shown though that as soon as things look messy we think that it is okay to throw our stuff on the floor too. If other people litter, more people will follow that bad example. After all it’s already a mess anyway.
Now, think of your event site. Is it a clean site? How often do you empty the bins? How clean is your toilet area or your food court? How much respect do you show for your own event site? Last year I’ve been to an event where all the food trucks were in the same area but no bins. Guess what the site looked like…
How to influence your audience
You need an audience that has a pro-environmental attitude. People with a pro-environmental attitude need to work hard as the decisions they make go against their egoistic values. Turns out we’re all quite egoistic as we all want the best for ourselves. Hence it is hard work to go green. So you, the event organiser, need to make it easy for them not to litter. Make it clear to them what it is you want to them to do.
Demonstrate your support of pro-environmental norms. The behaviour of others influences us. Good or bad. If your event supports environmental initiatives you need to shout about it. You need to make it clear that this is what you stand for. Communicate with your audience and educate them.
Self-regulation. What you as an event planner organise for your visitors, will be considered the norm. If you offer alcohol then most likely your guests will drink alcohol. If you offer vegetarian food, most likely people will eat vegetarian. If you offer a clean site, people will keep it clean. Festivals like Lightning in a Bottle and Burning Man have proven that it can be done. You can do it too.
You, the event planner, can influence the behaviour of your audience. You need to make it clear to them what you want to achieve. Shout about it. To change the attitude of your audience you might need to change yours first!