Most Americans are now wearing face masks and other personal protective equipment (PPE) to help slow the spread of COVID-19 (although political, regional, and racial differences remain). The rapid adoption of PPE is encouraging, but cities and businesses are now dealing with an unintended consequence: an increase in PPE litter.
In response, local governments have passed legislation and issued public messaging campaigns. While these measures make use of the traditional tools of government (regulation, incentives and information provision), behavioral insights may also have a role to play.
BIT recently partnered with Keep Indianapolis Beautiful (an affiliate of Keep America Beautiful) to decrease littering by focusing on the behavioral dimensions of the problem. Our exploratory research has identified a set of promising practices that can make proper waste disposal easier. Here’s a few ideas for how these practices could be applied to the problem of PPE litter:
Encourage reusable PPE as a substitute for disposables
Tackling the problem upstream can help reduce the amount of potential litter. The CDC recommends wearing reusable, cloth masks (not disposable ones), and frequent handwashing rather than plastic gloves. Timely messaging next to reusable PPE on store shelves, provided to stores by the distributors of these products, could make people aware of CDC guidance in a moment when they are able to act on it, and prompt people to choose reusable options. Stores can also contribute to social norms that encourage the use of reusable PPE through changes to the physical environment. For example, providing hand sanitizer or hand washing stations could help reinforce that frequent handwashing, rather than glove use, is socially desirable and common. And for retailers, this could have the added benefit of reducing costly, unattractive litter on their property.
Make it easier to dispose of PPE properly
Seemingly small friction costs to proper disposal, such as finding a bin, have outsized impacts. Making trash cans convenient and conspicuous by tracing a path to them with green foot-step stickers, or placing more of them in a given area, can help. Waste management agencies, business development districts, and public building managers could make proper disposal much easier by placing eye-catching receptacles in areas where people are commonly removing PPE.
Use messaging that has proven effective for COVID-19 mitigation behaviors
Trash cans may get even more use when coupled with signage that includes motivational framings and concrete calls-to-action. Recent research on messaging during the COVID-19 pandemic has shown some interesting trends. One survey found that prosocial messages are more effective than self-interest messages for inspiring COVID-19 prevention intentions. BIT’s work testing COVID-19 messaging through the What Works Cities (WWC) initiative has found emphasizing people’s duty to protect frontline workers can be effective. Based on this early evidence, we hypothesize that highlighting the additional work and worry that littered PPE causes frontline workers may encourage proper PPE use and disposal.
As health guidance about COVID-19 continues to evolve, so too will the unintended consequences resulting from each new piece of guidance (such as this uptick in PPE litter). Considering the behavioral barriers that citizens face can help businesses and local governments be nimble and implement evidence-based behavioral strategies like the ones listed above.