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Research article - Peer-reviewed, 2020

Clean environments as a social norm: a field experiment on cigarette littering

Sagebiel, Julian; Karok, Lukas; Grund, Julian; Rommel, Jens


Cigarette littering in public spaces is an environmental and aesthetic problem. Broken windows theory posits that visible signs of anti-social behavior such as littering create the perception of a social norm in built environments. Cigarette butts on the ground then encourage people to drop theirs as well. We test this theory on benches of a university campus in a field experiment with two treatments: (1) a clean environment with no cigarette butts on the ground and (2) a dirty environment with 25 cigarette butts on the ground. Our outcome variable is the number of additional cigarette butts on the ground after two hours. We find a small effect of approximately 0.5 butts less per 2-hour period on clean grounds. Increased cleaning efforts can thus reduce littering, but the effect is probably too small to justify additional cleaning costs.


broken windows theory; sustainable urban environments; Berlin; Germany; public cleaning; built environment

Published in

Environmental research communications
2020, volume: 2, number: 9, article number: 091002

Authors' information

Sagebiel, Julian
Technical University of Berlin (TU Berlin)
Karok, Lukas
Technical University of Berlin (TU Berlin)
Grund, Julian
Technical University of Berlin (TU Berlin)
Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, Department of Economics

Sustainable Development Goals

SDG11 Sustainable cities and communities

UKÄ Subject classification

Human Geography

Publication Identifiers


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