A rubbish idea?

Driving down the M1 recently I saw the following message on one of those giant dot matrix signs:


Having precious little else to do, I thought about that for a while. The wording of it. (Not, for once, the punctuation or clumsiness of the language.) Normally, an anti-littering message will be along the lines of PLEASE TAKE YOUR LITTER HOME WITH YOU or simply NO LITTERING. This particular sign appeared to be using basic psychology to persuade people not to chuck litter out of their windows. Perhaps it was an example of the nudge theory we’ve been hearing about.

Will it work, though? Would the thought that you’re in a shameful minority encourage you not to litter? On the one hand, we like to belong and to conform to certain behaviours. On the other, some of us are utter twats and will remain that way no matter what we read on road signs.

Blogger Pete Faint is strongly of the opinion that the signs won’t work. But I’m hoping they have a positive effect, because the motorway and A-road verges that I’ve looked at during traffic delays are in a terrible state. It’s not all the fault of drivers. Lots of ripped plastic sheeting seems to have ended up on roadsides from nearby farms. Crop farmers use huge quantities of the stuff to wrap their bales of hay or corn or whatever, and some of it gets blown away to festoon trees and hedgerows for miles around. But mostly it’s fast food packaging, magazines, sweet wrappers and drinks bottles, right up to bigger stuff like furniture and pallets. Plus puppies in sacks.

In any case, how would anyone know if it’s worked or not? We’d only know if they did a split test. Signs would go up along one motorway that’s just been cleared of all litter and along another one that hasn’t. After a year, you look at the results. Instinct tells me that the Highways Agency doesn’t think like that, though. I could be wrong. Incidentally, this guy had a novel approach.

The ‘litter creates jobs’ argument

I was coming home on the Tube with a colleague once when I noticed him drop his copy of Metro on the floor of the carriage. I pointed out that he’d dropped it, and he responded that it was OK, he’d finished reading it. I tried to convince him that he was littering, but his opinion was that dropping Metros was acceptable because “they have people at the end of the line who are paid to pick them up.” He must have thought I’d find this difficult to believe because he added  “I know because I’ve seen them.”

It almost sounded like he’d made some sort of point. Without all those Metros to pick up (along with all the paid-for newspapers that are now being left behind on public transport, since the coming of Metro has conferred legitimacy on the dropping of just about anything), the newspaper picker-uppers wouldn’t have a job to do. Well, not THAT job. But using that argument, it would surely be better from an employment perspective if we were all to commit more crimes (extra police and judiciary) and cause more collisions (extra jobs in manufacturing, insurance and auto repair).

The other point to bear in mind, and I think it’s a valid one, is that I hate Metro. Especially its laughable claim to be ‘apolitical’.

Anyway, what do you think? About the motorway signs? Think they might stand a chance? I’m itching to hear your opinion.


Filed under Modern life is rubbish, Stuff

10 responses to “A rubbish idea?

  1. dom

    it always amazes me when I see grown adults littering. I find their behaviour so baffling I am not sure what they would respond to. It’s a class/wealth thing right? So maybe the motorways are a bit badly targetted.

    • bravenewmalden

      Not sure I’m with you. What’s a class/wealth thing, dropping litter or responding to signs? I don’t think any one class of person litters any more than any other. The young litter as much as adults, although their behaviour changes according to whether they’re in a group on alone. The newspaper-litterers (“I’m leaving it for the next person!”) are almost precisely those targeted by Associated Newspapers, i.e. BC1s and 2s. Not sure how you could safely carry out a survey into who drops what on our motorways, unless it’s the M25. Then you’d have all the time in the world.

  2. Some people might read that sign and think, ‘If no one else is littering then mine hardly matters’ or ‘I can see a lot of litter, so that sign is lying, therefore I’m going to ignore it’. A more effective one might be ‘Only twats litter’, but no doubt someone would get all upset about that.

    There’s a whole lot less litter in the US as far as I’ve seen. Here no one seems to leave their detritus in cinemas, coffee shops or fast food outlets; they always bus it / bin it (even the poor people!). Someone did try to explain this difference to me by contrasting the American classless society where no one expects others to clear up after them with the feudalism that persists in the UK, but I wasn’t convinced. Although your colleague on the Tube gives it some credence!

    • bravenewmalden

      I remember noticing a certain degree of civic pride whenever I’ve visited the States. Singapore is often derided as being ‘sterile’ but I wouldn’t mind a bit sterility in our streets. And, yes, we can get rid of some of the ads while we’re at it.

      ‘Only twats litter’ might work – you never know. Some people respond well to being barked at and insulted. Which brings us back to ads…

  3. Pingback: 337 – Litter based vindication | Everyone's an idiot, and there's nothing I can do about it.

  4. Without meaning to be controversial, I think that all motorways signs are a waste of time.The M4 carries the ‘Bin your rubbish, other people do’ sign. The first time I saw it I thought ‘But I’m on the bloody motorway, you moron. How much rubbish do you think any person is going to generate, at 90 80 70mph?

    And those ‘A34 Chievely, 60 miles, travel time 60 minutes’ signs? They’re just performance targets put up there to taunt us. Or to try to beat by the fattest margin possible.

    Or those wonderful ‘Fog’ signs that come on *when it us foggy*. Outstanding.

    Nope, I’m convinced that all motorways signs are just put up there to give the sign companies a little enhanced profit.

    • bravenewmalden

      Ah, but the evidence confirms quite forcefully that people on motorways do manage to generate significant quantities of rubbish. Maybe more on motorways that they would in towns and cities, as there’s no one like me around to quickly pick it up and thrust it back through their open window before running away.

      I agree the distance/duration signs are largely pointless, the fog ones ludicrous and those warning us of non-existent ‘incidents’ do more harm that good. So I mostly agree with you.

  5. Even more than it did Brenning, the sign just passed me by – I think of “binning rubbish” as something I do at home. I thought it must have to do with the things my mother-in-law complains about: the new rubbish pick-up schedules and green boxes and such. It is true my husband and I generate rubbish on the motorways (of Europe, as well as the UK). But we neither bin it nor throw it out the window. We drop it on the floor and clean it out twice a year.
    Sadly, my husband eats a lot of fruit on long car journeys when he’s alone. There are always amusing surprises under the mats. Yecch.
    Today I saw a new motorway sign on the Catalan motorway. “Revisa’t la visió/ veure bé és seguritat” > “Get your vision checked/ seeing well is safety”.
    Any thoughts?

  6. I also find the text fascinating. I think any attempt to use a very simple, everyday phrase in a tagline is interesting, because if it works, it makes the value proposition (or desired reaction) look utterly self-evident. However, I learned that copywriter fascination long ago ≠ raw selling power, and the simplest answer isn’t necessarily the best.

    The problem here is that those who drop litter don’t really care about other people or their views, by definition. So the ‘social proof’ angle isn’t likely to work. You can’t shame the shameless.

    Personally I think the old ‘keep your country tidy’ line had more legs. It appealed to pride rather than shame – the sort of narrow-minded, nationalistic pride that might be felt by the sort of people who drop litter.

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