I was having a discussion with my girlfriend the other day as we drove back to our place. The topic: “How do I change peoples’ attitudes and behaviors with regard to waste?” It’s a subject dear to her heart. She is, after all, a Sustainability Consultant by trade.
Let’s face it. Our society is inherently wasteful. We live in a culture where pulling oil from the ground, making plastic from it, shipping the raw materials to a factory, manufacturing a new plastic spoon, and sending it to the consumer to be used once before being thrown away is seen as less effort than washing your spoon and using it again. My girl has always been sort of disgusted by this attitude, and trying to change it in the companies she’s employed with is her job. So the story of the single-use spoon is one that keeps her up at night. From time to time, we’ll talk about it and solve the world’s problems in conversation. It’s fun. Anyone who has ever had a circlejerk political discussion with likeminded friends knows what I’m talking about.
Anyway, while we were talking, I had a bit of an epiphany. Sustainability Greens are the Linux nerds of environmental science.
Bear with me, here.
Linux has a lot going for it. It’s useful, it’s free and open source, it’s quite customizable, and it’s quite efficient when it comes to utilizing the system resources. In short, for those in the know, it’s pretty much better than Windows at most things, and it costs absolutely nothing to use. Yet it has a tiny shred of the market share by comparison. Why don’t more people use Linux, then? A couple months ago, I witnessed a discussion on this very topic unfold. One user made a damned good point that agrees with my experiences as a new user of Linux. It went something like this – please forgive my paraphrasing:
“Linux isn’t as popular as Windows because it’s a lot harder to use. I think you guys are overestimating the level of tech proficiency in the general population of computer users. Have you used the latest version of Windows? It caters to that market. The average user never has to open the command line in Windows. That’s why it’s more popular.”
Obviously, this heretic was burned at the stake before he could back up his points. Fans of the OS attacked his argument on all fronts, but the general consensus of the opposition was something like “It’s not hard to use. You’re just stupid.”
I disagree. Once you open the command line, you’ve crossed the border into territory that’s far too frightening and complex for the average user to keep at it. Sure, they probably could learn what to do if they really tried. But they won’t – they’ll reboot their computers into Windows. The end result is that you get to feel smug and self-superior, but Linux keeps its small market share. This kind of thing is fine for Linux, which continues to thrive even though the vast majority of computer users don’t even know what it is, but this just isn’t acceptable for something as vital as Sustainability.
The “It’s not hard to do. You’re just stupid.” mentality definitely does exist in Sustainability and Environmentalism. In our car-ride conversation, I brought up the example of recycling to highlight the importance of simplicity at the user end.
Recycling is a simple concept. The products you use are made of resources that still have value even after the product itself ceases to be useful, and recycling is the process by which these resources are recovered. The alternative to recycling is the landfill. The idea of the landfill is also a simple one – you take everything in the bin and you put it in a pile on some undesirable scrap of land. You continue to do this until you run out of space, at which point you need to find another landfill. Which of these options is the environmentally friendly one? The answer should be obvious like the bleached-blonde hair on a girl’s upper lip.
Yet not everyone recycles. Recycling isn’t compulsory, and a lot of recyclable materials end up heaped in the landfill. Why? Why would people deliberately choose to waste things? How do we get them to change?
The answers to this are varied, and the focus tends to be on changing peoples’ attitudes, making them care, and ‘making Green sexy.’ Sustainability Greens will have their work cut out for them if this is the path they pick. It is not easy to get people off of the path of least resistance by rhetorical argument alone. You have to create a compelling message, get people to listen to it and agree with it, and hope that it’s enough to change peoples’ actions. It is extremely difficult to do this intentionally and reliably.
Behavior Change is hard. It’s pretty damned difficult to achieve on your own, when you have a real desire for it. Have you ever tried to lose weight, quit smoking, or stop biting your nails? It’s tough. Succeeding on a grand scale with a passive audience is far more challenging than that.
I think that the interested parties are approaching the problem in the wrong way. The immediate solution is not to make people care more, it’s to improve and simplify the end user’s participation in the desired behavior.
Back to Recycling.
When someone has an item that they want to be rid of, they have two solutions to choose between. One of these is easy, and one of these is hard.
The easy solution is to throw it in the bin, which takes all of two seconds – perhaps as many as ten if you try to toss it in basketball style and miss the shot. You might feel a little bit of guilt at sentencing that plastic bottle to death by slow decomposition in a landfill, but this will be short-lived.
Recycling is the hard solution. It requires more labor and specialist knowledge of the rules. You need to know what bin it belongs in, of course, but it’s more complicated than that. Is the item you’re trying to dispose of cardboard? Yeah, we can take that. Unless it’s been exposed to food, in which case, we can’t. Wait, is it corrugated? Go ahead, look it up. I’ll wait. Is it? Yes? Tough break, to the landfill it goes. Got any plastic? Is it the right plastic number? Because we can only take certain numbers, you know, and we also expect you to sort by color. Whoa, are you trying to recycle yogurt pots? Shit, man, what are you trying to do, kill us all? You can’t recycle those! What do you mean, ‘How is that any different to my plastic soup containers?’ It just is! Oh, cider bottles are glass. We can take those, if they’re the right color. But wait… the top is still on it, and that’s metal. Do you need to take that off and put that in the right bin? Wait, what if it touched food? What if I get this wrong? Will that sentence the whole bin to the landfill? Okay, cool, now we’re all sorted on the rules. We can now recycle all the time. Except, wait, you’re moving to a new town? Sorry, you need to learn all the rules and guidelines again. It’s mostly the same, except… you know what? Fuck it, just throw it out.
My point is that people don’t see ‘waste’ and ‘recycle’ when they’re trying to dispose of things. They see an easy option and a hard option. They pick the easy option. Why can’t everything go into a single bin, to be sorted at the plant? Why can’t we recycle some things that have touched food, but not others? Why can’t we have standardized rules for it across the country? If you want more people to recycle, you need to make recycling easy.
The response to this? “It’s not hard. You’re just stupid.”
While that’s true, it doesn’t solve the problem.