Jonathan Sher

What a Waste!

October 30, 2022

Who are the Israelis that go out into nature and leave dump after them? A new study exposes an unpleasant truth: we are those Israelis

Not many activities are as relaxing as a trip or a picnic in nature, among trees and flowers, away from the noise, the crowds, and the pollution. Similarly, there aren’t many things as annoying as finding a faded soda can between the bushes, a plastic bottle in the stream, cigarette butts thrown everywhere, used COVID masks, or filthy toilet paper on the sides of the road; such sights are unfortunately very common in nature in Israel.

If you find yourself both nodding in agreement and disgusted with the people who litter in nature, and even if you think of yourself as an ally of the environment, who takes care to keep it clean, a new study about littering in nature in Israel – presented at the 50th Annual Conference for Science and the Environment – shows that there is a good chance that you also litter in nature, and are just not aware of that (at best).

For purposes of the research from Haifa University – conducted with support from the JNF (Jewish National Fund, HaKeren HaKayemet LeYisrael), and conducted by Naama Lev, a Ph.D. student at the department for management of natural and environmental resources, and a researcher at the center for education towards sustainability at the Kibbutzim College – teams of surveyors would sit at picnic areas at JNF parks (from April through November 2021), documenting over 2,200 visitors and 411 incidents of littering. Additionally, the visitors who littered were handed 627 questionnaires about their level of content from the picnic areas. The anonymous questionnaires asked the visitors for their demographics, their position about littering in nature, the frequency at which they have littered in nature (if at all), and their opinion on garbage collection on site.

Photo by Naama Lev
There is a good chance that you also litter in nature, and are just not aware of that (at best). Photo by Naama Lev

This study is the third in a series of studies, and their results are to become Lev’s doctoral thesis (advised by Prof. Ofira Ayalon, of the Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Management, and Dr. Maya Negev of the School of Public Health – both at the Haifa University). The results of this study uncover unawareness even of the act of littering, as well as other surprising conclusions – such as the fact that neither increasing the number of trashcans nor placing them next to the picnic areas prevents visitors from littering.

How people believe they behave

Lev says that she chose the subject of her research to create a true change. “I have worked at the SPNI (The Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel, HaHevra LeHaganat HaTeva) for years, and I’m an avid hiker. It would always make me sick to see people littering, or go away while leaving garbage behind,” she says. “I would go up to people and ask them why they do it. When I began my studies for a Ph.D., I wanted that my research would have meaning outside of Academia.”

Besides being unaesthetic, littering in nature is a dangerous phenomenon that causes wide ecological harm: wild animals might eat either pieces of plastic that smell like food, wipes, or plastic bags, and it is not rare for animals to get a bowel obstruction, or even to die. Soda cans might injure animals who try to chew on them or trap smaller animals in them. Organic waste, such as leftover food, also poses ecological dangers – species feeding on it (for example, wild boars or golden jackals) could reproduce to an extent that threatens other species.

In the first of the three studies, Lev examined the public conception of littering in nature. 401 participants, a representative sample of the Israeli public, who visited a nature reserve or a park at least once in 2020, answered a questionnaire about littering in nature. According to the study, many assume that some types of waste are less harmful and therefore they could throw them: toilet paper, wipes, organic waste, and cigarette butts. The results of the research show that though 98.5% of the people who answered the questionnaire view with great importance the cleanliness of the site they visit, 45% of them stated that they had littered at least once in the past year. Interestingly, but not surprisingly, the respondents said that in contrast to their littering, which was either absent-minded or because there wasn’t any trashcan around them, others (so they claim) litter because “they enjoy the act of littering”. Some Israelis have such low opinions about their compatriots…

Photo by Naama Lev (3)
though 98.5% of the people who answered the questionnaire view with great importance the cleanliness of the site they visit, 45% of them stated that they had littered at least once in the past year. Photo by Naama Lev

In the second study (conducted with the help of the NAKI association and the SPNI), Lev interviewed people who are in charge of operating, cleaning, and enforcement in nature reserves. She talked to 50 office holders in environmental organizations (SPNI, JNF, and so on) and discovered dissatisfaction with the standards by which the sites are operated and with the level of information and education towards keeping nature unpolluted. She also found that many prefer to focus on the symptoms – namely the level of pollution at the sites – and not the actual problem, which is littering. According to Lev, that is one of the reasons the problem persists.

How people actually behave

The third study, revealed here for the first time, was about what actually happens in reserves and parks, including real-time documentation of people littering and handing them questionnaires. With funding from the JNF, Lev trained teams of surveyors, who hid at various picnic areas, watched some 2,200 visitors, and documented 411 cases of littering. 627 questionnaires were filled in, collecting other information, such as demographics and positions regarding waste. “We went to talk to people whom we saw littering,” explained Lev, “and we said we were conducting a satisfaction survey and were interested in their opinion. Hidden between other questions in the survey, there were also questions about littering.”

In the study, garbage disposal was split into three categories: one category was intentional littering – throwing garbage on the ground, leaving it behind, or hiding it (42% of the observed cases). Another category was improper disposal: throwing garbage into the trash and missing (and not picking it up afterward), putting garbage in a bag and leaving the bag outside of the trash, or failing to pick up garbage blown in the wind (41% of the cases). The third and final category was proper disposal: putting garbage into a closed trashcan or taking it out of the park (17% of the cases).

Additionally, the study examined three groups of factors that were found to be significant in littering. One group consists of environmental factors: the overall level of pollution at the site, whether the trashcans seemed well maintained or not, where they were positioned, etc. A second group consists of personal factors: how the person littering viewed nature as important and how responsible they felt for the cleanliness of the site. The third group is situation-related factors: who was with the person who littered, the type of garbage thrown away, and some types of behavior that might be linked with littering – the research found a positive correlation between littering and either smoking cigarettes and hookahs, having a barbeque (Mangal) at the picnic, or using disposables and plastic bags.

Kings of denial

According to the study, about 40% of the visitors who were found intentionally littering answered that they never litter in nature. “It might mean,” says Lev, “that people don’t think of themselves as littering or are ashamed of admitting it. Additionally, I was surprised by the fact that many people claim to love nature and to believe that littering is wrong and that it is the responsibility of visitors to keep nature unpolluted – yet still litter,” adds Lev. This result might mean that even when wanting to avoid harming nature, people don’t know enough about the proper disposal of garbage to do so.

Photo by Naama Lev (2)
About 40% of the visitors who were found intentionally littering answered that they never litter in nature. Photo by Naama Lev

Another surprising result of the study is that placing trashcans next to visitors did not help in reducing the number of people littering. “There are picnic areas with small trashcans next to the tables (Asphatonim). We discovered that the closer the trashcan was to the tables, the less satisfied were the visitors. One of our recommendations is to place big trashcans or dumpsters at a reasonable distance away from the tables since people are willing to walk even 200 meters to a dumpster to throw away the garbage.”

According to Lev, one conclusion from the results of the study is that there are no magic cures against littering in nature, and the “littering type” can’t be clearly characterized; polluters come from a variety of ages, genders, social groups, and religions. “It’s hard to point to one characteristic which might explain the phenomenon all on its own; the results show quite the opposite – the causes for this behavior are multiple, and therefore actions in several directions must be taken: education and information are necessary, but so are better facilities and enforcement.

Do you want to make sure that your behavior does not put nature at harm? Lev gives a few rules of thumb: “most importantly – do not leave waste behind in any way besides in the designated closed containers. A waste bag shouldn’t be left tied to a tree or even next to the container if it’s full. Rather, you should take the garbage with you – that includes organic waste; animals don’t need to be fed. Even small pieces of waste – seed shells, cigarette butts, bottle caps, etc. – can be found in large quantities in nature, and pollute it. Generally, you should avoid using disposables (which are 20% of the total amount of littered waste), and notice that they don’t blow away in the wind.

One last rule, which is very important: “it should be clear that even when you have bowel movements,” emphasizes Lev, “nothing should be left behind, and that includes toilet paper and everything that goes with it – they should be put in a bag and thrown to the trash.”

This ZAVIT Article was also published in The Jewish Journal on 25 Oct. 2022