Taking — And Enforcing — Responsibility for Litter

Litter is a classic example of what economists refer to as a “negative externality.” A negative externality is basically a cost, resulting from a transaction, but imposed on people not party to the transaction. Voluntary transactions are efficient when all the costs and benefits are borne by those who are part of the transaction. When others are forced to pay costs, that means the buyer isn’t paying the full cost of the good, and so too much of that good is likely to be purchased, from a social point of view. Economists call that “inefficient.” The rest of us call it annoying, and unfair. What can, or should, businesses do to help?

From the BBC: Store owner takes on litterbugs

A village shopkeeper is marking sweet wrappers and drinks bottles with the names of children who buy them in a bid to discourage them from littering.

Yvonne Froud, 52, took action after becoming fed up with the rubbish collecting in Joys Green in the Forest of Dean, Gloucestershire.

She said the village, particularly the children, had taken the campaign on board.

“It’s made a great difference. The whole village is a lot cleaner.”

It’s a neat idea (no pun intended). Of course, it only works because Froud’s shop is in a small town, and she literally knows all of her customers by name. So there’s no way for kids to give a fake name & avoid accountability.

Two thoughts occur:
1) Is some version of this possible, or desirable, in larger towns where the shopkeepers don’t know their customers by name? Presumably it’s not impossible, from a technological point of view: swipe an ID card at the till, the register prints out small ID stickers that the cashier slaps onto each item, etc. Worth it? Probably not, though maybe there’s a simpler way that I’m not thinking of.

2) As far as the BBC story mentions, the policy only applies to kids. My guess is that it only applies to kids because adults wouldn’t accept Froud’s well-intentioned meddling — even if they ought, ethically, to welcome it.

3 comments so far

  1. Anonymous on

    And what if a piece of litter with your name on it blew out of a trash can or was taken out? Would you be charged with littering? Outside of her village, the whole idea is a non-starter. Like you noted, it could probably only work with children in a small town, but isn’t educating children about litter better than relying on punishment or coercion? Interesting story though, I commend the shopkeeper. -Kevin McDonald

  2. Paul on

    Interesting concept – never thought of it applied to litter. Recycling is the more obvious application. The cost of recycling non-returnable bottles is a classic example of a cost of the bottlers being passed on to municipalities, which have to either pay for recycling programs or pay for dumps.The beer stores figured it out a long time ago by dealing with their own empties – charge a suitable deposit, take back the returns, reuse. And by some accounts they get more than 90% of bottles back. All on their own dime, or at least that of the consumer.Around here they’ve just implemented the same practice with wine and liquor bottles. Why cola bottlers were ever allowed off the hook is a great mystery to me.[By the way, Chris, you damage your own credibility when you claim “no pun intended” 🙂 ]

  3. […] What kind of individual or combined transgression if any is committed by this action? Moral and legal boundaries or aesthetic and pragmatic ideals aside, nobody makes the connection that tomorrow’s grocery and electronic prices are higher because of the current massive cart movement on city streets−costs that are invariably passed onto the consumer/litterbug/thief (cf. litter as a classic example of what economists term a “negative externality“. […]

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