Saturday, December 22, 2007

Two ideas for reducing waste

I want to propose two ideas that I have had recently based on the fact that I doubt that people's behaviors can change without altering the incentive structure that currently exists, which is that there is little or no incentive to reduce waste or recycle. Given that at least a sizable minority, or more likely a unanimous majority of people are looking out for their own good, and they don't quite see the long term impact of their behaviors on the environment, I believe that institutions need to change what people see they get out of recycling in tangible terms. And the one language that all people speak is money.

1. Bag reduction
At my local store, they give a discount for bring in one's own bag. The reduction is not much - 5 cents. Imagine if the store instead gave a 50 cent discount. Now that's worth bringing bags for! Usually I have 4 bags for my trip, and that's $2.00...that can buy me coffee, while 20 cents doesn't even get me a gumball on the way out the door. But, you say, the store will go broke in no time! Not if the store CHARGED people who did not bring their bags 50 cents per bag. That's a hefty price! The 50 cents can offset the 50 cent discount that the bag reusers get. But, you say, sooner or later, people will realize that they have to bring their own bags, and the problem is that more people will be bringing their bags, and the store will go broke! Not if the store begins reducing the discount to the people who bring their bags to 40 cents. The bag reusers will have less of an incentive to bring their own bags, but still, 40 cents gained is better than 50 cents lost. One could continually adjust the cost of the bags and the discount given until a pareto optimality is reached so that the store neither gains or loses any money from the bag program. Why would a store do this? Because it is better than the status quo where the store pays for the bags - the bag incentive program pays for the bags.

2. Home recycling
In many municipalities such as my own, you place your trash and recyclables out on the curb. I see many people with multiple trash bags but no recyclables. The other trash day, I noticed through the plastic of one of these people's bags that there were numerous cans and bottles that could have been recycled if the person wanted to. How can we make this person want to? Simple: charge people for the weight of their trash, and pay people for the weight of the recyclables. Why not? There is a certain cost to removing trash in terms of creating landfills and the like, and a certain monetary reward for recycling in that it produces raw materials such as aluminum and glass. At the current time, people do not see the economic cost or benefit of either, except that they know that their trash pick up is paid for through their taxes.

The fee system (i.e., how much a pound of trash or a pound of recyclables costs) would have to be determined for the pareto optimization here, and this brings up a number of ethical issues (i.e., people stealing each other's recyclables and leaving trash in front of other people's houses) but I believe it may be possible to resolve these problems (i.e., locked trashcans that are unlocked by the garbage person, just as my mailbox is unlocked by the postal worker. Why would a municipality want to do this? Because once again, it places the cost from the municipality onto the people. Those who want to be wasteful can still be wasteful. They just have to pay more for it. Those who want to conserve can conserve. They will be paid for their efforts.

Unfortunately, I do not believe that environmental education works well. This is not to disparage blogs like this: Environmental education works sometimes. Take me. Sure, I never thought of plastic bags before I encountered this blog, and now I am up to having reduced the number of plastic bags in this world by over 530 bags. Not a drop in an ocean, but it is a start. But to make real change, society needs to get everyone doing it. And to get everyone doing it you need to speak to them in the only language we all speak, which is not the language situated in the brain, but the language situated in the wallet.


SBCatMan said...


You are far too young -- and far too educated -- to be so cynical. Sure, financial incentives would help, but what is needed more than anything is simple patience.

While societies often seem to be sliding downhill, I think that, in fact, hard as it sometimes is to believe, societies tend to gravitate towards what is right. It just takes a while for this to happen.

200 hundreds years ago slavery was rampant in the land of the free. More recently, just 4 years ago or so, even Sheriff Andy Taylor of Mayberry lit up his Lucky Strikes in our living rooms. Today, smoking bans are spreading across the country. Not only NY and LA, but even Louisville and Lexington in the Commonwealth of Kentucky and Bloomington, IN are smoke-free. Even little South bend, IN is trying to get there and the campus of IUSB is now smoke-free.

So, too, with envirnmentalism. It is coming. Just be patient. Sure, there are gobs and gobs of morons who do not re-cycle, but 15 years ago there was not even a recylcing program for them to ignore. And, the very existance of this blog is a testimony to a movement in motion.

So, my advice to you -- patience, grasshopper, patience.

Experimentaholic said...

While we are being patient, millions of tons of materials that could be recycled are entering the waste streams. I do get your point - change happens slowly, but I am only suggesting ways of making change happen faster. After all, how many millions died of lung cancer and heart disease before these laws were enacted?