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Nudging Pitt Students (Pt. 1 – The LANDFILL Idea)

September 16, 2011

During my short stint as a “Student Sustainability Coordinator” for the University of Pittsburgh, I became aware of an issue known as “cross contamination.”  The basic problem is that a great number of recyclable items tend to end up in the trash, even if a recycling bin is placed adjacent to a trash bin.  The standard “solution” to cross contamination is simply to increase the number of recycling bins in a given area, and hope that cross contamination decreases and recycling rates increase.  But how cost effective of a solution is that if your target area is 132 acres (Pitt’s campus), especially if said campus is already saturated with receptacles for recyclables?  And what about the fact that people will continue to throw away recyclable items even when it is equally as taxing (easy, actually) to recycle them instead?

Surely there could be a less costly plan that would directly attack the cross contamination issue.

Thinking differently, what if the problem is that people are simply thinking about trash in the wrong way?  What if it’s informational?  That is, if we give people a little more insight into the consequences of their actions, maybe their behavior will change.  This is exactly what we decided was the issue, which led to the creation of this label:

The basic idea behind the design (which turned out not to be quite as novel as I had originally thought, see: NudgeBlog) is twofold:

One, regarding the “LANDFILL” part, the hope is that by actually telling people (reframing) what happens to their trash when it is discarded, the act of throwing something away fades from a mindless, passive action and becomes a thoughtful, active act.

And two, the “IMPERIAL, PA (17.3 MILES)” part is a separate nudge within a nudge, one that attaches regional responsibility to an action.  This is accomplished by unveiling the actual location of the landfill where the actor’s trash will ultimately lay.  In the University of Pittsburgh’s case, this is a landfill in Imperial, Pennsylvania (which, of course, is about 17 miles away).  The hope here is that an individual’s pride for their home (Pittsburgh and its suburbs) will motivate them to, in this instance, recycle.

In the Spring of 2011, we piloted this project by placing these labels on two different trash cans in the busiest dining hall on campus.  One trash can was directly next to a recycling bin, while the other was alone, but was about 15 feet from two other recycling bins.  The actual experiment lasted for one month, and we examined the quantity of recyclable items that were both recycled and discarded during our control (first two weeks, no labels) and during the actual experiment (last two weeks, with labels).

Next Wednesday’s post will cover the results from the experiment, as well as any further insight that we gained.

- James

Note: Special thanks to Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein, the authors of the 2009 book “Nudge.” Without their inspiration I may never have founded this organization.  Also thanks to John Balz, the great editor of Nudge’s online companion, Nudges.org, and tolerator of all of my dumb tweets.

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