The low cost of high-hanging fruit

Last week I wrote an article about a project by NUSSU SAVE (Students Against Violation of the Earth) to improve the community recycling bins in one Choa Chu Kang neighbourhood in Singapore’s north-west.

The problem: stuff that shouldn’t be recycled, such as styrofoam cups and dirty food containers, often gets into the recycling bin along with recyclables. Food waste can render a binload of paper unrecyclable. Why? People either don’t know what’s recyclable, or don’t care.

The project involves a very simple tweak: telling people what can and can’t be recycled – right on each recycling-bin lid. And then putting waste bins next to each set of recycling bins, so that someone who just wants to get rid of a piece of trash can do so.

A similar project on the National University of Singapore campus from 2008-2009 cut contamination almost entirely, though it remains to be seen how well this community project will turn out.

I asked Marcus, the NUS Office of Environmental Sustainability project advisor, to keep me posted on how much the project cost. You might be able to show that useful behavioural interventions need not cost a lot if they are targeted, I said.

He said something that gave me pause: not many environmentalists think this way.

It’s as though there are two camps: people who want to get recycling and other environmental change done at any and all costs, and people for whom costs alone are the biggest factor, who give less weight to the longer-term environmental costs and benefits. And it sounds an awful lot like they’re not communicating well with each other.

Part of the problem is that the two camps have very different expectations of human behaviour. I’m not going to say it’s the whole problem, but it hurts. One side is very, very optimistic. The other side is saying, well, we don’t think it’s going to help that much, so we’re not willing to invest this sum.

“Useful behavioural interventions need not cost a lot if they are targeted.” Sounds pleasant and non-controversial, doesn’t it?

Well, let’s break that down.

Interventions – mean anything that will boost the recycling rate, or cut back on carbon emissions, or improve energy efficiency, or whatever environmental goal you have in mind.

Need not cost a lot – This one is trickier. What does ‘a lot’ mean? And to whom? There’s another important question that has to be addressed. Who’s doing the paying? But the whole idea of ‘need not cost a lot’ is that this is a small intervention, that it’s affordable when compared to other, bigger schemes and wholesale policy changes.

But here’s the most important (and maybe the hardest) bit – they need to be targeted. That means you need to work with human behaviour, not against it. I like the recycling-bin stickers because they predict, quite accurately, that people don’t know what can be recycled. And I like the waste bins next to recycling points because they predict, also accurately, that people don’t care.

You want a behavioural intervention whose returns outweigh its costs. You don’t want to spend thousands of dollars, say, on beautifying dustbins, if that is not going to increase the rate at which people put things in dustbins rather than on the ground.

Good luck guys, let me know how it goes!

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