APR 24, 2017 6:02 AM PDT

Trick your neighbor into recycling

It may not come as a surprise that moving recycle and compost bins closer within reach has a significant impact on people’s habits. We are, in general, motivated by convenience and the less effort we have to exert, the more likely we will complete a task.

The research, published by scientists from the University of British Colombia in the Journal of Environmental Management and Planning, got consistent results. The study shows that placing bins 1.5 meters away from apartment doors encourages recycling and composting rates, boosting these rates by 141%.

Photo: The Spruce

"We know people care about the environment but having the desire to recycle and compost doesn't always translate into behavior changes," said Alessandra DiGiacomo, the study's lead author. "Perhaps unsurprisingly, we found that people composted and recycled much more when we made it more convenient."

How did they quantify their hypothesis? The researchers tested the study at three multi-family apartment buildings in Vancouver and in two student residence buildings at UBC. They put bins in three different locations: a garbage disposal area (the least convenient option), at the base of an elevator in a building (a more convenient option), and by elevator doors on each floor (the most convenient option). Then they looked at what people were putting in the bins, and the results were even better than expected.

When each floor in an apartment building had its own compost bin, instead of just one for the entire building located on the ground floor, composting rates shot up by 70%. And when recycling stations were placed a meter and a half away from students’ suites (instead of in the basement), recycling and composting rose by 141% on average.

The study’s results speak on how behavior can be managed in ways more creative than just the conventional environmental education methods. Study co-author Jiaying Zhao, professor in the UBC department of psychology and the Institute for Resources, Environment and Sustainability said, "Traditional views are that we have to educate people about the importance of recycling and composting, but we believe that's the wrong model because people already know. Simple factors, such as convenience, can be key to helping us become more environmentally friendly."

By zeroing in on human behavior in order to reinforce good actions (in this case, recycling and composting habits), we may be able to look at the picture from a different angle than we’ve been seeing in order to give eco-friendly practices the push to become second nature. "What psychologists can do is change the environment a little bit so that our actions can follow through on our intentions. We need to provide solutions and alternatives to current practices to help people recycle and compost more," said Zhao.

Sources: UBC, Journal of Environmental Management and Planning

About the Author
  • Kathryn is a curious world-traveller interested in the intersection between nature, culture, history, and people. She has worked for environmental education non-profits and is a Spanish/English interpreter.
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