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Research article2020Peer reviewedOpen access

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

    Sustainable Development Goals

    Make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable

    UKÄ Subject classification

    Human Geography

    Publication identifier


    Permanent link to this page (URI)