The Essential Litter Bin – Function, Form and Strategies

Table of Contents:

£694m was spent on street cleaning in 2019/20

In the United Kingdom, it is estimated that over 2m pieces of litter are dropped on the streets on a daily basis, amounting to substantial annual clean up costs that are predominantly funded through taxpayers’ money. Government figures accumulated from 2019/20, have revealed that local authorities spent a combined total of £694m on street cleaning as a result of littering.

Interestingly, the clean up costs varied significantly when comparing specific local councils. Haringey London Borough Council spent £9.4m on street cleaning during this timeframe, in comparison to the £22.4m spent by Westminster City Council, amounting to a cost of £85.74 per resident. The cost per head for Windsor and Maidenhead Council, meanwhile, was just £0.54, amounting to a comparatively low £82,000 annual charge. On a national scale, the amount accumulated by street cleaning costs worked out as £12.33 per head.

Perhaps the most concerning aspect of littering, however, is the effect it has on the natural environment. By polluting urban environments, the impact of littering then extends to waterways, soil and eventually our seas and oceans. Littering risks enabling toxic materials to enter nature, directly affecting animal habitats and food chains. Research estimates around 1m animals perish each year due to littering, with plastic the most commonly occuring harmful material. The decomposition time of plastic is notoriously extensive, and can take anywhere from 20 to 500 years to break down depending on the materials structural makeup.

Ultimately, this paints a clear and troubling picture of the direct social, economic and environmental consequences that littering has on both individuals, communities and the animals that inhabit our planet. More prominently than ever has the importance of effective waste management been so clear. Properly disposed of urban waste restricts the problem at the source, significantly reducing the cost of maintaining urban cleanliness and ultimately preserving the quality of the environment.

A Brief History of Littering

The iconic tidyman logo was established in 1969

‘The Littering Epidemic’ first gained recognition as a national problem in the 1950s as mass-consumerism began to boom and plastic found its way into most aspects of manufacturing. In response, the National Federation of Women’s Institutes initiated their ‘Keep Britain Tidy’ campaign in 1954 with the first litter act established by The House of Commons in 1958. This saw a £10 fine applied to all offenders of littering with Keep Britain Tidy receiving a £1,500 per annum grant to publicise the new act.

The campaign was able to register as an official charity in 1960, with the now iconic ‘Tidyman’ logo incorporated onto bins and packaging across the UK in 1969. By the 1980s, the charity benefited from a £500,000 annual income from public and private sources, and their success led to the establishment of the Environmental Protection Act in 1990. The once Government-backed initiative continues to run in the modern era, though, it is now recognised as an independent environmental charity. 

The visibility and visual identity of litter bins in public places, meanwhile, began to receive increased and more dedicated attention to coincide with the formation of Keep Britain Tidy. The Design Council, formerly the Council of Industrial Design, organised a competition around 1960 that encouraged proposals for cost-effective and well-designed litter bins that could be utilised effectively in public environments. Successful submissions would have their design exhibited in an exhibition at the Embankment Gardens in London, in addition to the Design Index and Approved List of Street Furniture. The success of the event led to a permanent exhibition of street furniture on London’s South Bank later that year. 

There remains no accepted visual identity or uniform colour for litter or recycling bins across the UK. The design of litter bins tends to differ from county to county, as per circumstances administered by the respective local council. Units are predominantly manufactured from metal or plastic, though many modern designs now incorporate wooden or concrete designs in order to provide modern, visual appeal to the commodity. Fixings are usually either bolt-down or attached to a dedicated post to prevent removal or instances of vandalism, though these still frequently occur. Designs will now usually entail an enclosed top to prevent wind-blown litter.

As per data compiled by Keep Britain Tidy as part of their national Litter in England survey in 2018, littering percentages have worsened across England since the charity’s last conducted survey back in 2014/15. Smoking-related litter was found to be the common type of street litter, appearing in 79% of all surveyed sites and representing a 6% increase from previous data. This was followed by confectionery litter at 60% and non-alcoholic cans and bottles at 52%. Fast food litter, meanwhile, has steadily risen across the last 2 decades to coincide with its increasing popularity.

With the frantic pace of daily life, more and more people eat and drink on the go, especially in bustling cities. This results in the ever-increasing requirement for an adequate number of well positioned litter bins throughout public places in the UK. Litter bins are the first line of defence in keeping litter off the streets. They are an essential fixture for public places that help to maintain a clean, tidy and hygienic environment, in turn significantly improving the cleanliness of streets. To be effective, however, they must be kept clean, well maintained, readily available and easily accessible.

Strategies, Campaigns and Initiatives

Hubbub’s ballot bin in use in Graz, Austria

For litter bins to fulfil their role in urban environments they require visibility and their function must be well understood by society. While litter bins play a central role in the prevention of littering, there is no “one size fits all” formula. Government-backed organisation Zero Waste Scotland have developed an essential Binfastructure guide and resource as part of their efforts to combat the issues of waste and litter in the country.

What this illustrates is that research and practice inform effective decision making. A key factor in raising awareness towards litter prevention is encouraging people to contemplate where their waste should be deposited. The last few years have seen several developments in litter bins and the ways they’re used, with a number of organisations experimenting with research and practice methods in order to make bins work better.

Danish behavioural science group iNudgeyou conducted a trial in the city of Copenhagen which utilised their expert knowledge of the “nudge theory”. The trial involved painting green footprints on the streets which lead to a similarly coloured litter bin, as green is a suggestive colour commonly associated with environmental issues. Sweets were handed out to residents of the city during the trial, with the group counting the number of littered wrappers before and after the footprints were introduced. The results of the trial found a 46% fall in the number of littered wrappers following the introduction of the green footprints, with results after a further 3 months continuing a 26% decrease. A similar study was conducted in Stirling in Scotland in 2015, with results finding a 15% reduction in the number of littered wrappers.  

Charity organisation Hubbub have been leading and designing campaigns since they began operating in 2014. One of their most recent is their PlasticButts campaign, which was driven to raise awareness that cigarette butts are made from a plastic called cellulose acetate, rather than the commonly assumed cotton wool. According to a poll by Censuswide, only 1 in 4 people are aware of this. Cigarette butts are considered the most common form of litter in the world, with only a third of the 6.5 trillion cigarettes smoked every year making it to a bin. Hubbub polling produced positive results, however, and found that 57% of smokers would be more likely to find a nearby litter bin knowing what the butts were made from. 

In response, Hubbub developed a campaign on the streets outside the UK’s most active train station, Stratford. They placed playful, visually appealing interventions, such as billboards, newspaper stands and a seaside picture board in order to raise awareness of this widely unrecognised issue. Included in this campaign was an enlarged version of their well-renowned Ballot Bin. This ‘customisable voting ashtray’ was launched as a commodity to the mass-market in 2016 and has helped to reduce litter by 46%.

Love Clean Streets is a free app-service that was developed to enable users to report environmental issues directly to their local authority. Using the app, users simply take a photo of the incident; the location is automatically detected, and enter some brief corresponding information before they are able to post their report. The local authority then directs the report to the most appropriate service for resolution. In essence, this is incentivisation at a base level. Individuals or parties are more likely to address an issue that is visually demonstrated. 

Incentivisation is the primary motivational driver behind LitterLotto. The initiative is designed to nudge people about the litter issue, achieving a productive response through rewarding positive action. LitterLotto uses an app system that allows users to enter prize draws by submitting an image of  themselves disposing of litter responsibly. The initiative LitterLotto works with brands, organisations and local councils with a shared aim of reducing the damage caused by rising levels of litter.

Litter Bin Placement

Bins are essential in “hotspots” like city squares

What these studies show is that increasing the quantity of litter bins alone does not necessarily lead to a reduction in litter. Visible and intuitively-placed bins are key, with visual enforcement a highly useful tool for encouraging use. Bins are most effective in “hotspot” locations like transport hubs, city squares, town centres, public parks and car parks. Anywhere that people congregate, it’s likely that litter will follow. Placing them close to fast food outlets, shops and supermarkets will help to manage the rising number of ‘on the good food’ consumers. 

In contrast, placing litter bins in “notspot” locations with restricted access, issues with obstruction and a lack of visibility will be detrimental to their effectiveness and potentially lead to a risk of vandalism, while poorly dimensioned areas will tend to attract additional litter.

Conclusively, the placement, design and maintenance of litter bins can be hugely effective in combating littering behaviour. Some cities, such as Edinburgh, have utilised bins with smart sensors that monitor bin levels and send a mobile phone alert to the respective authority when the bin reaches a predetermined level. Self-emptying bins, meanwhile, are already being trialled in parts of Scandinavia. These units utilise sensors to air currents that transport their contained waste to a central point.

An overly full and inaccessible bin will encourage people to litter and accumulate side waste. Litter leads to more instances of littering and therefore maintaining bins regularly is key to making sure they remain functional and effective for users. This can be easily achieved by monitoring bin levels and prioritising collections in order to ensure the essential litter bin is unable to contribute to the litter problem, working in detriment to its crucial function.

Improving Litter Bin Design

The 8100 Series thrives in urban environments

As a consequence of their demanding urban environment, modern litter bins need to be able to withstand hard, prolonged use and the likelihood of damage. Modern units have gradually moved away from the short-term, cost-cutting solutions provided by the widely utilised plastic litter bins of the past, which were susceptible to vandalism and often suffered burn and stub marks from discarded cigarettes. Modern designs now prioritise long-term value through enhanced durability, a longer use-life and lower maintenance needs. 

With the purpose of aiding litter prevention and combating general street waste, metroSTOR have developed a range of litter bins that match the robust qualities necessary for the litter bin to thrive in modern urban environments. Our designs are capable of adaptation to suit a range of different environments, in both traditional and contemporary settings.

Engineered with the same attention to detail and build quality as our metroSTOR bin housings, the metroSTOR 8100 Series is a visually-appealing collection of outdoor litter bins, designed to offer build-quality assured durability in demanding urban environments. The series utilise galvanised steel welded into a strong, rigid steel shell, with an integral door frame that prevents flex in the bin structure. Alongside replaceable panels, these features ensure the 8100 Series provides resistance against vandalism, while a high-quality powder coated finish ensures the unit is protected from corrosion.

Customisable options across the 8100 Series are both visual and functional, such as removable ash trays with integral cigarette stubber, seagull access prevention, respective signage and recycling stream specific aperture control. In addition, there are opportunities to incorporate on-the-go recycling points and options for incentivisation graphics and branding, such as the LitterLotto. 

Summary of Key Points

Regular maintenance will restrict side waste

Ultimately, for litter bins to be effective in modern urban environments, there are certain key points that must be established and put into practice.

Awareness – Increasing public awareness of the impact of littering and applying the consensus broadly across the UK is the first step towards combating the issue. Working to achieve this will increase the significance of litter bins in public spaces and urban environments from an afterthought to a more prominent fixture. 

Strategies – Campaigns and initiatives remain the most effective means to raise awareness from the general public and offer users a platform for change. Developing strategies through critical thinking will help to understand the drivers behind littering and encourage solutions to help combat the issue.

Placement and Maintenance – The optimum location of litter bins should be the priority consideration in order to ensure that they are best placed to serve their fundamental purpose. In addition, regular maintenance and servicing is essential to restrict overflowing bins and the accumulation of side waste. Failing this, even bins of high-quality design and function will fall short of delivering an effective output.

Design and Build Quality– Improved design has allowed litter bins to meet demands across the ever-changing landscape of urban environments. Ensuring that litter bins are well-designed from both a visual and functional perspective is crucial for establishing their effectiveness. Units of a high build-quality will be able to withstand vandalism, offering essential durability and long-term value.