Research Summary

The Maui's Dolphin Challenge: Lessons From a School-Based Litter Reduction Project

Reducing Litter in Schools through a Norms-Based Intervention

Australian Journal of Environmental Education

Littering remains a significant environmental issue, especially among young children, who research suggests litter more than adults do. However, researchers rarely focus on the efficacy of interventions to reduce littering among school-aged children. This study considered an intervention to reduce littering within that particular population, using a culture of sustainability to contextualize the intervention.

The program planners named the intervention Maui’s Dolphin Challenge (MDC) after the highly endangered Maui dolphins that live off New Zealand’s coast. Four theoretical frameworks guided the project: caring/compassionate values, embodied learning, a sense of efficacy, and perceived social norms. The intervention aimed to help students develop compassion for the Maui dolphins, effectively act on those compassionate feelings by picking up litter, create a social norm that littering was unacceptable, and encourage students to pick up their own litter, as well as that of other people.

Taking place at a secondary school in Auckland, New Zealand, the research involved 600 students, ages 13 and 14. The MDC offered to donate $200 once a week for three weeks to WWF’s Maui Dolphin conservation work. For every piece of litter found at the school, however, MDC would remove $1 from the $200 donation. The program planners implemented the intervention twice, each for a three-week period. Researchers from the University of Auckland oversaw the first round (MDC1); students from the school, with faculty assistance, oversaw the second round (MDC2).

Researchers asked two questions during the program: (1) Did the intervention reduce littering among students? (2) What behaviors and attitudes motivated students to pick up, or not pick up, litter? In both MDC1 and MDC2, researchers conducted a waste audit three days per week to compute the amount of litter. They used the lowest audit number (in order to increase student efficacy) to subtract one dollar per litter item from the $200 total, based on the number of pieces of litter found. The researchers surveyed the areas three times the week before the first count to establish a baseline litter count.

In MDC1, the researchers used a questionnaire to gather information on students’ attitudes toward litter; in MDC2, the researchers used interviews and a focus group with students and teachers. During both MDC1 and MDC2, researchers hung posters in classrooms that explained information about the dolphins and the project, including how the dolphins were being threatened and the amount of money (after subtracting the litter amount) that would be donated to WWF. More posters were hung during week 2: one poster restated the challenge; the second appealed to the students’ values by showing an injured dolphin; the third used a normative appeal and showed a clean area with no litter, stating that most people do not litter; and the final poster appealed to efficacy, showing that the WWF donation would have a meaningful impact.

The study found that, in MDC1, the intervention reduced the amount of litter at the school during the three weeks of the program, as well as one week after. Student surveys indicated that the students reduced their littering because they cared about the dolphins, wanted to maximize the dollars donated, and felt like their actions were effective. Students often framed the challenge in positive instead of negative terms, even though the researchers framed the challenge through a negative lens, using phrases that highlighted avoidance language such as suggesting the need to pick up litter to avoid losing money that would be donated.

Results from MDC2 also demonstrated reduced litter, with half the amount of litter from the baseline by the last week of the challenge; the reduction continued a week after the intervention. In teacher and student interviews, both groups said that the appeal of the dolphins was important to the success of the program. They thought that deeply understanding the problem was important, especially in understanding how littering affected not only dolphins, but also other sea life. The students felt it was important to talk about the environmental action happening at the school, as well as within the broader community. Shame often prevented students from picking up other classmates’ litter. The school had used picking up litter as a punishment previously and that association lingered even during the intervention.

The Bottom Line

A school-based intervention may be useful in reducing students’ littering. Helping students feel compassion toward specific species, such as the Maui dolphin, can be effective, especially when coupled with learning about how littering affects not only that species, but also the environment in general. The context of littering at a school is also important. If picking up litter previously was used as a punishment, for instance, it may be more difficult to normalize this action within a school setting, even if students care about the environment. Alternatively, engaging student leaders in picking up litter might be a way to demonstrate positive norms, making this action more acceptable within a school community.