Dear Crucial Skills, I run a city initiative to clean up garbage in the spring. Do you have any advice for influencing residents to stop littering in the first place?
Thank you for your community service. We each need to do our part. After all, we are the community, and the community is us.
This is a great challenge. I’ll use it to illustrate the Influencer process, applying a few basic principles from Influencer and our new book, Change Anything. I’ll also pull ideas from a successful anti-litter initiative I found while researching your question.
Crucial Moments. Look for leverage points—the times, places, and people that contribute the most to your litter problem—then focus your efforts on these hot spots.
- Places: There are probably a handful of places that are magnets for trash—abandoned lots near schools or bars, busy bus stops, fast-food restaurants, etc.
- Times: There are probably a few times of the week or the year when people are most likely to litter—Friday nights, before and after football games, during parades, etc.
- People: There are probably a few people who are especially likely to litter—people who eat while driving, etc.
Focusing on crucial moments is a very powerful way to magnify your efforts—regardless of your challenge. The leaders of the anti-litter campaign on San Juan Island discovered a perfect storm for litter: Place—the main road to the dump; Time—weekends; People—those who drive pickup trucks without a cover on their load. They created a campaign called “Secure Your Load,” using signs, direct mail, and press coverage. Their targeted campaign eliminated a major source of litter on the island.
Vital Behaviors. What few behaviors have the biggest impact in these crucial moments? I’ll share a few potential behaviors supported by literature and anti-litter initiatives. You should determine the two or three vital behaviors that are key to addressing your community’s litter problem.
- Remove litter before it becomes the norm. Researchers have found that litter attracts litter. This is also known as the broken window effect. People see litter—or a broken window, graffiti, or weeds—assume it’s an accepted practice, and contribute to the problem.
A while ago, my wife and I lived in a neighborhood that had become a target for late-night graffiti taggers. We helped organize a volunteer initiative that made it cheap, if not free, to get paint that exactly matched the buildings, fences, walls, or other structures that were being tagged. This worked much better than painting over graffiti using a standard white paint, which left white boxes on the sides of buildings. We expected the taggers would return again, so businesses were encouraged to keep the bucket of paint handy and to paint out the graffiti each morning. When taggers discovered that their graffiti work had been entirely removed before members of the public saw it, many left our neighborhood. The situation was not eliminated, but it improved dramatically within just a few weeks.
- Reduce the source of the litter. Another successful component of the San Juan Island Anti-Litter Initiative was to identify a few organizations that generated far more than their fair share of litter. They found that the Washington State ferry system was placing cardboard tags on the windshields of every car waiting to board ferries. When these cars drove off, these bits of cardboard became litter. They influenced the ferry system to change the way it tracked cars, eliminating the need for the tags and reducing litter.
- Place trash receptacles in litter-magnet locations. This is an obvious vital behavior. Find the litter magnets and add a trash can or dumpster. The challenge of course is that these trash receptacles will have to be emptied on a regular basis, but emptying them is far easier and less expensive than picking up trash.
Develop a Six-Source Plan. Once you’ve found the leverage points—the times, places, and people that contribute the most to your litter problem—and identified your vital behaviors, develop a plan incorporating all six sources of influence that supports the vital behaviors. I’ll suggest a couple of strategies within each of the six sources.
- Personal Motivation. Meet with the businesses that are litter magnets. Explain the broken window theory, then ask them to pick up trash every day for just two weeks so they can test whether the theory will work for them. Discovering a solution that works can be very motivating.
- Personal Ability. Make it easy. We gave businesses free paint that was already formulated to match their building. You might try giving them free trash bags and arranging for extra garbage pickups.
- Social Motivation & Ability. Form a quick-response team of neighbors or businesses. These teams can work with a business that’s a litter magnet—picking up their litter every day for two weeks to prove the broken-window theory. Another social strategy is to sponsor a public education campaign that involves local newspapers, schools, community Web sites, popular bloggers, and more. On San Juan Island, the local paper set aside space for a regular “Trash Talk” column.
- Structural Motivation. Often the litter magnets are in violation of city laws. While you offer them help for keeping their areas litter free, you can also remind them of these laws. Businesses may also need permission from the city to place a trash receptacle on a city sidewalk.
- Structural Ability. As I mentioned above, one of the best tools for battling litter is the humble trash can. Make it easy for people to dispose of their trash. Work with businesses, schools, the city, and other organizations to install appropriately sized trash receptacles in locations that are targets for litter. Make sure these receptacles are emptied regularly.
I hope I’ve sparked ideas for applying these principles to your litter problem as well as other problems you face at work, at home, or in your community. Sometimes I think of the Influencer process as a magic wand for creating change. Once you have the wand, your question becomes, “What problem should I tackle?” When it comes to influence, there is no prize for thinking small. Maybe you can use Influencer to prevent littering in your neighborhood. Or maybe you’ll take on a different problem. Maybe you’ll influence people to live healthier lifestyles, or to spend more quality time with their families, or to perform at a higher level at work.
What will you influence for good?