AI-powered insights to drive down roadside littering

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AI-powered insights to drive down roadside littering

By Alex Robinson 18th October, 2023

At Hubbub, we’ve always been about combining insight, behaviour change techniques and creative communications to inspire actions that are good for the environment. There are lots of ways to generate the initial insights into a problem, from observing people’s actions on the street to focus groups and polling – and now, artificial intelligence.

When it comes to litter, we’ve learned that we can turbo-charge our impact by using cutting-edge tech to see exactly what’s being dropped and where (even down to the material), and what difference our interventions make. Beginning with our Neat Streets campaign in Bournemouth and Poole in 2021, we’ve partnered with Ellipsis Earth, who use advanced image-capturing technology and AI to map litter in incredible detail. AI helps process billions of images of litter far more efficiently and effectively than could be done manually and the outcome gives us a wealth of insight.

Our recent campaign, Tidy Roadsides, tackled roadside litter in Glasgow and Cardiff. It’s a big issue: litter costs £1bn a year to clean up. Roadside litter is especially tough to clear, and it’s much more than an eyesore: packaging harms wildlife and plastic fragments gets into waterways, eventually joining the 80% of all ocean plastics coming from land. 

Here’s the headline finding: data-driven interventions installed in litter hotspots are 4-5 times more effective at reducing litter than untargeted interventions. In plain English: if you want to reduce litter, it’s worth knowing exactly where to place your bins and signage. It’s at the heart of a set of insights that could help councils, agencies and those tackling roadside litter to become much more effective, reducing environmental impact while saving time and money.

Hand us a magic wand, and here’s what we’d do next:

  1. Prioritise hotspots. Policymakers and local authorities should take a targeted approach when planning litter reduction campaigns and clean-ups, focusing on hotspots where cars slow down such as junctions, slip roads and roundabouts. Our data shows that putting litter interventions in non-hotspot locations can make little to no difference. 
  2. Go for the combo. Combining bins and messaging is more impactful than bins or signage alone. In Glasgow, signage alongside rewrapped bins led to a 58% reduction of litter within 20m of the bin (versus a 45% reduction for a bin alone). In Cardiff, the combination of bins and signage led to a 23% reduction in litter at a service station, whereas isolated signs didn’t make much difference.
  3. Make it easy. We’re hearing lots in the news about being friends with the motorist. Well, here’s a chance to give them what they need: bright bins, visible at night, with big apertures (so they can’t miss!), placed where they naturally stop.
  4. Work together. Roadside litter is complex: there’s an opportunity for highway authorities and councils to work collaboratively with businesses to target litter hotspots through consistent messaging and infrastructure.  A compelling national litter awareness campaign could raise awareness of the cost and impact of roadside litter, highlight unintended littering, normalise positive behaviour and focus on one call to action.

Put all of the above together, and you have the makings of a four-point plan to address the scourge of roadside litter.

Want to know more about how an insight-led approach might help with your own environmental challenges? Watch the video below, get in touch or watch our webinar recording to hear us chat through our learnings.

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