Our waste disposal behaviors are not the behaviors that we give the most attention. Many of these behaviors are automatic, which may lead to errors. However, we can also learn from our waste disposal behaviors to improve our healthy behaviors.
– Nudges for a Healthy Lifestyle –
Reading time: 6 minutes
I was visiting a large office building the other day. After drinking three cups of coffee from the same cup, I wanted to dispose my paper cup sustainably. So, I took a close look at the waste bin in front of me and the choices for disposal that it offered me (see top image). On the left I saw something that resembled a grey paper coffee cup. On closer inspection this was a grey waste bin, where the color grey, the waste bin and the text indicated that it was ‘other waste’. On the right I saw a bottle, a can and a plastic bag on an orange background. In The Netherlands the color orange is associated with plastic waste (including metal cans).
So it seemed rather obvious that my paper coffee cup should go to the left waste bin. However, when I looked in both waste bins, I saw a completely different picture: almost no paper cups in the left waste bin, and many paper cups in the right waste bin. This seemed to be a result of barriers for the correct behavior, uncertainty about the correct behavior, and social herding.
Barriers for correct behavior
Imagine you walk from one meeting to the next. You are carrying your bag over one shoulder, laptop in one hand and in the other you are carrying your empty coffee cup. You walk past the waste bin above and want to dispose your empty coffee cup. It is easy to throw your coffee cup in the right waste bin that doesn’t have a lid, but much harder to throw it in the left bin that does have a lid. Because you somehow must lift the lid of the left bin.
This is what professor Eric Johnson in his book “The Elements of Choice” describes as plausible paths: the options that people perceive to be available. The chosen option is often decided quickly and without a lot of reasoning. Kasper Hulgaard and his colleagues observed long ques when exiting the luggage claim to go to the main hall in Copenhagen Airport. When people left the luggage claim, many took the right door – a plausible path – and not the left door – not a plausible path. They were already walking on the right side, because they wanted to avoid the office for declaring goods on the left. They now stayed on the right side of the hallway, resulting in a queue for the right door and many delays. When green tape was used to indicate to travelers that they could use both doors (see right blue map), both paths became equally plausible, resulting in more fluent passenger flows.
The same happens when disposing of your empty coffee cup. The plausible path is to throw it in the right waste bin. So when the correct behavior does not follow a plausible path, this potentially leads to errors.
Uncertainty about the correct behavior
These errors are more likely when there is uncertainty about the correct behavior. What is the icon on the left exactly? We do not have such waste bins in The Netherlands; we only know these from American cartoons. For many people it may be unclear what this waste bin represents. What does the icons on the right represent? For many people it may be unclear that it represents a bottle, a can and a plastic bag. Even if you recognize all these icons, than uncertainty about where to put your paper cup remains, because the logo on the paper cups indicates that it is plastic. Finally, the most common waste is paper coffee cups, but there is no indication where paper cups should go.
So even if paper cups are processed together with other waste, it would make sense to collect them separately (as in the waste bins below). That makes it perfectly clear where paper cups should be placed. The additional communication on the waste bins also reduces uncertainty about what should be placed in which waste bin. It even explicitly tells you what to do if you are not certain: throw it in the grey waste bin (see text on the lower left that says: “when in doubt”). So uncertainty about what is the correct behavior potentially leads to errors.
So if there are barriers to the correct behavior and uncertainty about the correct behavior, we often look at others to determine the correct behavior. When I want to dispose my paper cup, a quick glance in the orange waste bin tells me what is likely to be the correct behavior. If most people throw the paper cup in the orange waste bin, than that is probably where it should go. So if others show the incorrect behavior, this potentially leads to errors.
Supporting your sustainable behavior
So how can we increase sustainable behavior for paper cups specifically and other waste disposal behavior in general? The first thing is improving ability of people, or at least level the playing field, so they can separate their waste better. This could include removing the lid from the “Other waste” bin to make the correct behavior easier, or – if it is expected to generate to much bad smell – add a lid to the plastic waste bin to make the undesired behavior more difficult. The second thing is improving the knowledge of people, so they know how to separate their waste better. This could include adding communication about how waste should be separated. This could also be education at schools, so children learn the correct habits in separating behavior. The third thing is improving other people’s behavior, so they do not follow the incorrect behavior of others. This could include making sure the first couple of people show the correct behavior, so others follow suit. Merely influencing the perceptions of other’s behavior can be effective, when there is uncertainty about the correct behavior, although this should not contain untruths. Displaying a message on the waste bins that says “80% of the people throw their paper cups in the left waste bin”, would not be effective, since it can easily be seen that this is not based on reality. An easy solution in this specific case, would be to replace the paper cups with plastic cups: they will automatically end up in the right waste bin.
Supporting your healthy behavior
The same principles can be used to support your health. First, you can improve your ability to perform healthy behavior by making it easier than the unhealthy behavior. Park your car two blocks away from your home – or why not three if you want to do it right! And leave your bike somewhere on the way to your car, so that it is easier to take the bike than the car.
Second, you can improve your knowledge about healthy behaviors by using numbers for your health. If you know how many flight of stairs you have to walk to burn a single M&M, you may be more likely to both reduce your daily M&M intake and increase the number of stairs you walk.
Third, you can improve your perceptions of others people’s behavior, by carefully selecting a role model for your healthy behavior. This role model should be doing things better than you, but not by so much that it seems unachievable. Who would be your role model and why?What You Can Learn from Your Waste Disposal Behaviors to Improve Your Health Click To Tweet
Niels Vink (1975) is author of Golden Behaviors and behavioral designer. He uses insights from the behavioral sciences to explain why people often act against their own interests. As a behavioral expert, he explores how you can nudge your behavior for a healthy lifestyle. He has Master degrees in Social Psychology (Leiden University) and Industrial Design Engineering (Delft University of Technology) and holds a PhD in Consumer Behavior.
When you have been inspired to start and maintain your Golden Behaviors, reach out to me.
Source of top image: Photos by Niels Vink