Causes of litter Causes of litter

Littering behaviour

National audits show the majority of litter is a result of pedestrian activity, in other words, a personal choice not to dispose of litter appropriately by an individual.

This Scottish Litter Survey in 2022 found that when people were asked how responsible different groups of people were in preventing and cleaning up litter, individuals and consumers were considered most responsible, higher than local authorities, the Scottish Government and retailers.

So, who is littering?

There is no set demographic of people who litter, and evidence suggests that almost everyone has littered at some point and many doing so occasionally. A rapid evidence review of littering behaviour and anti-litter policies by Zero Waste Scotland suggests there are some factors which can affect the likelihood slightly – these being younger people, males, and those who smoke plus other potential factors.

Importantly, what causes this littering behaviour?

There are set circumstances when a person may litter - with personal, social and material factors, which interact, playing a part. The following factors will increase the likelihood of someone littering:

Personal factors:

  • Thinking it is someone else’s responsibility to keep an area clear of litter
  • Lack of understanding about why it’s a bad thing
  • No pride or respect in the local area
  • Rebellion
  • Laziness
  • Dislike of holding a litter item such as gum or a cigarette end
  • Wanting to keep their own space clear
  • Thinking an item is not litter such as an apple core or banana skin
  • Aversion to bins

Social factors:

  • Thinking it’s normal to litter
  • Having friends and family litter
  • Peer pressure

Material factors:

  • Being in a run-down and not cared-for space
  • Presence of cleaners or people clearing litter
  • No enforcement presence
  • Lack of location to dispose of litter
  • Inconvenience of using a bin
  • Lack of infrastructure at home such as space for domestic bins

Understanding how these factors lead to littering behaviour can help to change the circumstance and stop people littering. You can find out more about changing behaviours on the Interventions page.


Material consumption is a significant driver of environmental issues globally and the levels of single-use items such as packaging have been increasing over time and evolving with differing lifestyles. More than three quarters of UK consumers buy food at least once a week while on-the-go. The effects of this can been seen on the ground, with drinks and confectionery litter commonly seen on our streets, roads and beaches.

In national auditing of streets in Scotland, food and drink packaging made up almost a quarter of litter and close to half when discounting smoking related litter. In the Scottish Litter Survey 2023, 69% of people report seeing food containers, wrappers and packaging often.

Budget cuts

There has been a significant decline in public resources and budgets to tackle litter. The cost of street cleaning per 1,000 population has fallen by around 40% since 2010/11, some of the largest reductions across Council services. This will ultimately mean litter is left for longer and can start to accumulate.

Further to this, litter creates litter. The broken window theory is a concept that signs of crime such as vandalism creates an environment that encourages further crime. Studies show that areas littered encourages more litter. Say a street already had 19 pieces of litter, someone may choose to litter as they are only contributing 5% to the problem; whereas on a completely clean street someone considering littering would be contributing 100% to the problem therefore may choose not to.

Marine litter

Research tells us that 80% of marine litter comes from land but that means 20% can come from the oceans and seas and washes in with each tide. Some litter can even travel from other continents.

Sea based sources of marine litter consist of items that have been deliberately thrown away into our seas or unintentionally lost. Much of it is likely from the fishing sector.

Accidents/ escapes

It is almost unavoidable that some items will escape into our environment becoming litter. This could be a tissue falling out of your pocket, a bag catching the wind and flying off, a bin lid flying open and domestic waste escaping, or animals taking items out of a public bin.

There have also been reports of coastal erosion causing old landfill sites to be exposed and waste uncovered and escaping. A map of active and closed landfill sites that are/were regulated by SEPA can be found on Scotland’s waste sites and capacity data tool. Many of the coastal landfill sites are historic and were never regulated by SEPA. Local authorities may hold information on these.

Further reading

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