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Littering: what levers of action for communities?

Do you know the broken window theory? According to a study conducted by James Q. Wilson and George Kelling in 1982, when one window in a building is broken, if it is not immediately replaced, the others will quickly be broken by other people.

Littering: what levers of action for communities?

This theory has caused quite a stir in the United States because it explains how simple incivilities, through a snowball effect, can transform a peaceful neighborhood into a lawless zone. 

Applied to waste, this theory highlights the importance for communities to have clean spaces so as not to encourage residents to dump their waste in an anarchic manner.

Littering a real headache for communities

Litter is defined as " waste improperly abandoned in the environment, either intentionally or through negligence, in publicly accessible areas or on private property with or without the owner's consent." (ADEME, 2019). The definition therefore includes both bulky waste (computers abandoned in fields, scooters thrown into the Seine, household appliances dumped on the edges of landfills, etc.) and diffuse waste (chewing gum, cigarette butts, or plastic bags littering the sidewalks). 

According to the latest estimates of the Association Gestes Propres, about 1 million tons of waste are abandoned in France each year, the equivalent of 100 Eiffel Towers .

Although the sanitary measures linked to Covid-19 have limited the proliferation of abandoned waste in certain areas, particularly tourist areas, they have also created a new source of litter with, in particular, the multiplication of abandoned masks.

This litter has multiple and direct impacts on the quality of life of the French people (degradation of landscapes and living environment, sources of nuisance for the neighborhood), on the public environment (pollution of soils, air, rivers, water tables, seas and oceans by toxic substances), on public health (multiplication of larvae breeding grounds responsible for the propagation of epidemics, contamination of the food chain by various pollutants, etc.) and even on the budget of the communities (the collection of litter by the cleaning services is much more expensive for the public service and their diffuse and soiled character complicates the sorting and recycling).) and even the budget of the communities (the collection of litter by the cleaning services is much more expensive for the public service and their diffuse and soiled character complicates the sorting and recycling gestures).

But what can be done against these incivilities? According to a survey conducted by Ifop in 2021 for Gestes propres, 27% of French people admit to having already abandoned a piece of waste on the ground. Three solutions are favored by respondents: sanctions against litterers (54% of French people in favor), educational measures (23%) or optimization of collection measures (25%).

The Agec law, a legislative advance to fight more effectively against litter

The Government has made the fight against illegal dumping one of its priorities and, in accordance with measure 27 of the "Circular Economy" Roadmap listing the means of prevention and sanction, a reference guide is made available to local authorities and agents who fight every day against these illegal dumpings.


The anti-waste law for a circular economy (AGEC) of February 10, 2020, has also led to many advances, along three main lines. 

  • The creation of an extended producer responsibility (EPR) channel for construction waste: the entry into force of this measure on January 1, 2022 will make it possible to act on the causes of illegal waste management by creating an effective network of collection points and free collection for sorted waste.
  • A system for financing the clean-up of illegal dumping: on the one hand, the EPR sectors concerned will cover part of the costs and, on the other, the administrative fines paid by the perpetrators of illegal dumping will be collected by the local authorities.
  • Reinforcement of surveillance and sanction systems: the law provides for more dissuasive fines for littering and facilitates the work of elected officials through various measures (access to vehicle registration systems and use of video surveillance, pooling of human and financial resources at the level of groups of communities, empowerment of new agents, including street watchmen, etc.). 


4 levers of action to enable communities to deal with littering issues

In addition to legislative advances, various solutions are available to communities to strengthen the fight against litter. These include the deployment of concrete and effective collection systems, awareness-raising campaigns on the impact of litter, the use of nudges to trigger the right actions, calls for citizen projects and the introduction of financial incentives. 

First lever

Deploy concrete and efficient collection systems

This means that local authorities must adapt collection systems according to their location on the territory. In natural areas or near the coast, it is preferable to use concrete garbage cans with lids or containers, as illustrated by the initiative carried out by Citeo in Marseille. Indeed, waste garbage cans without side protection or without lids make it easier to dump waste. In addition, like the broken window theory mentioned in the preamble, regular collection schedules are essential to avoid overflowing garbage cans, which encourages lit tering. To support communities in this approach, there are computerized monitoring systems for the rate of filling of collection points, which help avoid their saturation.

Second lever

Raising awareness of the impacts of littering

Informing citizens about the fate of waste, the cost per capita of waste thrown away in nature or their concrete impact on the environment is an effective way to encourage them to adopt the right actions. To do this, the choice of a humorous tone is to be favored, as highlighted by a Swiss study that revealed that posters with humorous content have reduced waste littering by 60% compared to 25% with a poster with authoritative content. This is the choice made by the association Gestes Propres in partnership with the AMF to raise awareness of the impacts of marine waste and waste abandoned in the wild. 

Third lever

Using nudge to trigger the right action

The nudge is a concept from the behavioral sciences that consists of a gentle incentive addressed to an individual to encourage an expected behavior. Applied to waste, it consists in setting up an innovative and visible collection system that helps trigger the right actions among citizens. This was done in Lille through the use of "hopscotch" stencils to guide users to the trash can, or in Biarritz, with the Re6clope association, which set up a system for collecting cigarette butts through a voting system.

Fourth lever

Introduce financial incentives 

Essentially aimed at companies, financial incentives are also a good way for local authorities to encourage their citizens to limit waste-related incivilities. Among these, promoting free or almost free access to waste collection centers for professionals is an initiative that has proven its worth in the municipality of Rosny-sur-Seine. Indeed, companies in the area can drop off their waste at the waste disposal center and the prices vary depending on whether or not the depositors sort their waste. For example, the unsorted ton is charged 115 €, while once sorted the ton of concrete rubble is charged 5 €. 

Thus, it appears that many tools are available to communities to limit the spread of litter. In addition to the 4 levers of action listed, various local initiatives exist to prevent incivilities and encourage responsible behavior among citizens. To find out more about them, discover the Guide to the fight against illegal waste dumping and abandonment proposed by the Ministry of Ecological Transition.