Over the past few months an organisation called Hubbub has been carrying out a series of ‘playful’ localised anti-litter interventions in London. Their project, called Neat Streets, was focused on Villiers Street in Westminster, one of the busiest in the capital in terms of footfall. Funding was provided by organisations including INCPEN (the Industry Council for research on Packaging and the Environment), the Packaging Federation, the Metal Packaging Association, the Packaging and Films Association, Lucozade Ribena Suntory and Coca Cola.
Neat Streets ran from May to October 2015, and involved a number of fun campaigns such as:
- Vote with your Butt, Musical Butts, and Butts Out (addressing cigarette litter);
- Gumdrop on-the-go, and Chew Is It? (targeting chewing gum), and
- A range of other more general anti-litter interventions.
Hubbub’s CEO informed a packed House of Commons committee room last week – and later tweeted – that Neat Streets cut litter by 26%. The Parliamentary event, attended by Environment Secretary Rory Stewart, was mentioned in a tweet from INCPEN, which described the ‘26% improvement’ as ‘massive’.
Taken at face value, it’s certainly significant – but the Final Evaluation Report on Neat Streets, written by Keep Britain Tidy (KBT), based on monitoring undertaken by Hubbub, tells a more nuanced story.
Twenty four litter counts (of litter on the ground) were conducted between May and October. According to Appendix C of the report, a total of 36,946 items were counted, of which 27,964 (76%) were cigarette butts. However, the main litter count analysis excludes cigarette butts and focuses on the remaining 8,982 items. KBT has a reasonable rationale for this approach; their previous research has found that:
“People treat cigarette butts differently to other types of waste and many people who would not normally litter other items, will litter cigarettes.”
They also note that the disposal of cigarette butts can be significantly more frequent than other waste types (as was the case at Villiers Street) and unless analysed separately tends to skew the results. There’s another good reason for separate analysis, both of cigarette butts and chewing gum, highlighted in a 2014 report by Keep Scotland Beautiful for INCPEN on litter composition:
“A count of littered items does not distinguish between ‘freshly-thrown’ litter and accumulated litter. Chewing gum and cigarette ends are particularly difficult to clear and therefore do accumulate.”
Of the 8,982 (non-cigarette butt) items counted, 43% were packaging: drinks containers, food packaging, crisps, confectionary, food-on-the-go packaging, cellophane wraps, plastic bags and cardboard boxes. This figure increases to 55% if cigarette packets, cigarette pack wrapping and foil paper are included. Yet neither packaging as a whole, nor specific items of packaging such as drinks containers (18% of non-cigarette butt items), were targeted. By comparison, chewing gum litter, the subject of two separate campaigns, comprised just 6%.
The targeted campaigns on chewing gum and cigarettes appear to have had some success.
For cigarette litter, observers identified the proportion of smokers that littered their cigarettes rather than placing them in a bin or ashtray. In May (the baseline month), 89% of butts were littered, while in the following months, on average 82% were littered. The largest improvement came in September (70% littered), corresponding to the month of cigarette prevention activities.
This certainly seems encouraging, although the evaluation report says littering increased to 86% in October, suggesting the effect was not sustained. Also, June saw comparatively low levels of butt littering (76%) without any cigarette-related activities taking place.
In June and July, when chewing gum was targeted, reductions of 54% and 26% (relative to the baseline counts from May) were recorded. In August, activities ceased, and chewing gum litter returned to baseline levels (although given likely increases in footfall this could represent a relative improvement). The evaluation report states that these results may indicate that the measures were effective in reducing chewing gum litter, but cautions that:
“No direct link [between the interventions and the results] can be made since in September and October, chewing gum levels went down again by -80% and -38% respectively despite no activities specific to chewing gum at the sites.”
Not so sharp focus
While it’s no surprise that an anti-litter campaign funded predominantly by the packaging industry should focus on items other than packaging, it’s interesting to note that INCPEN has previously expressed the view that targeting single items is ineffective, their website claiming that:
“There is no point addressing just some items because there is a huge amount of evidence that even one piece of litter begins to make an area look dirty and uncared for which encourages more irresponsible behaviour and more litter (the Broken Windows syndrome).”
A press release on the topic called instead for a:
“Comprehensive approach that tackles everything.”
Given their support for the Neat Streets campaigns focusing on chewing gum and cigarette butts, presumably this position has now been superseded. If so, that’s good: as I’ve argued previously, using measures that attempt to target everything runs the risk of targeting nothing very effectively, or failing to focus on the types of litter where the greatest impact can be achieved at the lowest cost.
Not made to measure
The evaluation report notes a number of important limitations of the research, which escaped mention at the Parliamentary event. A key one was that:
“The conclusions that can be drawn from the litter counts about the impact of the project on litter are limited, as only litter on the ground/left on street furniture was counted.”
KBT had recommended that Hubbub monitor both waste on the ground and deposited in bins, stating that:
“This would have allowed fluctuations in the overall amount of waste in the stream to be accounted for, e.g. during warmer periods or special events when footfall tends to increase at sites such as Villiers Street.”
The evaluation report indicates that budget constraints meant Hubbub couldn’t follow KBT’s recommendation. On the face of it, this seems surprising. The intervention was funded to the tune of £100,000, but insufficient money was allocated to properly monitor its effectiveness. It’s difficult to disagree with the following, wonderfully understated, recommendation of the report:
“Keep Britain Tidy recommends that in future litter prevention projects, Hubbub incorporates monitoring of both litter dropped on the ground and deposited in bins to fully understand the impact and effectiveness of litter prevention initiatives.”
The report also explains that:
“Given that many activities took place, often simultaneously and with no control site monitored, it is not possible to assess whether any particular project made a significant enough difference to support its replication elsewhere.”
Damaged on impact
Well, the evaluation report does identify that October’s count of litter on the ground was 26% lower than May’s baseline. However, it says:
“It is not possible to definitely attribute this reduction in litter on the ground to any specific intervention, as many other variables, such as footfall and seasons affect the amount of litter present at any site throughout the year.”
It observes that, while Neat Streets was running, the number of littered items increased in June and July, peaked in August, and then started to decrease. The authors state that:
“Insights from Keep Britain Tidy’s annual Local Environmental Quality Survey suggest that this is a typical pattern seen across the country. Footfall is at its highest in the summer months and so we could expect litter levels to be higher than in winter months when the footfall is lower.”
It seems quite possible, therefore, that autumn, and not Neat Streets, can take credit for at least some, perhaps all, of the ‘massive’ reduction in litter reported. Unfortunately, the monitoring was insufficient to enable the background trend to be excluded, which is a real shame. A good evidence base regarding approaches trialled in the various Neat Streets campaigns would really have helped us to understand their cost-effectiveness and whether they’re worth replicating.
The findings presented in the evaluation report are important, and need to be understood by stakeholders. Not least amongst these is Defra, as the department has announced it will be developing a national litter strategy starting in January, and it is essential that this be based on sound evidence. Despite headline claims to the contrary, the limitations of the monitoring, presented in KBT’s evaluation of Neat Streets make clear that attributing a 26% reduction in litter to Neat Streets interventions cannot be substantiated.
Some people suspect the project was an attempt to divert English policymakers away from the kind of interventions being considered in Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales, but I had genuinely hoped it would reveal some positive impacts, and detail on their cost-effectiveness. I’m sure there is a place for such hyper-local interventions, and the project itself has done well to raise awareness of the issue through impressive media coverage, but evidence based on effective monitoring is key.
Defra needs a strategy that will deliver the greatest impact at the lowest cost. There is room for a range of approaches, and hopefully, some of them will be ‘fun’; but any heavy lifting will probably have to be undertaken by more ‘serious’ measures of the type that have clearly demonstrated their impact elsewhere.