The upside of confronting your trash

As the Great Garbage Strike of '09 enters its 12th day, an increasingly piquant odour is  in the air. Pretty amazing when you think about it- we produce so much refuse as a city that, in less than two weeks, we're already starting to stink ourselves out. It's rather frightening how dependent we really are on timely municipal services. It's the thin green line between civilization and...well, some dirtier, smellier version of civilization. Recently, I finished a great book by Cass Sunstein and Richard Thaler called Nudge. It argues that people are subject to a series of biases that produce bad decisions, particularly when the decision in question is complex, provides little feedback or imposes delayed costs. To correct for these biases, Thaler and Sunstein recommend "nudges", or improved choice architecture that helps people make better decisions about health, money, and the environment. It's a nifty idea.

As I rode my bike through downtown this morning in a garbage-tinged breeze, a funny thought occured to me: the garbage strike is creating a big, foul-smelling and difficult-to-ignore  "nudge" for Torontonians. Waste is a classic example of a human activity subject to routine biases. People are wasteful because, when all is working as it should, they are not confronted with the consequences of their wastefulness. Trash doesn't pile up and things don't start to smell. Most importantly, you aren't required to haul the remnants of your daily activities away in your family car.

The trash strike turns this all around. Every day, all over the city, people are coping with the rather urgent problem of an increasing quantity of garbage and dwindling space to store it. And no one wants to put bags of waste in their new Nissan. There are a variety of responses to this situation. Impotent rage seems to be a popular choice. Neighbourhood garbage collectives and for-profit trash removal are another. I suspect - and I have no empirical evidence to support this, but it seems reasonable - another response is behavioural change. People may begin to change their consumption patterns and opt for products that produce less waste. Perhaps they will be more conscientious and waste less food in the kitchen. Whatever the new behaviour might be, the outcome is reduced garbage output. That's good for the city (as it takes some pressure off our overburdened waste infrastructure) and it's good for the environment (less trash in landfills). We've been nudged into a (slightly) more responsible way of living.

Obviously, a garbage strike is not a sustainable or desirable form of nudge. But it does hint at the possibilities of employing more nudging strategies to reduce waste and promote more responsible consumption. In fact, pre-strike Toronto employed a very mild nudgewith its garbage bin program. Requiring homeowners to purchase a garbage bin of a specific size does two important things: it visually demarcates the available space for garbage, and imposes a direct cost on over-cosumption (more garbage = a bigger bin = more money). In other words, garbage bins increase feedback and may help encourage better choices.

No question, waste is always a significant problem and more expansive solutions may be needed. What other nudges might be employed in this area? I'm no expert on waste removal, but a few spring to mind:

  1. Even more infrequent trash collection (say every three weeks);
  2. Private or user-pay (with an appropriate reduction in property tax) trash removal, where fees are levied on a per-bag or even per-pound basis; and
  3. Increased social sanction. The technology exists for garbage collectors to collect real-time data on garbage output by house and neighbourhood. Perhaps each house could have a curbside "garbage flag". Dwellings that are under the neighbourhood average would have their flag set to green, those at the average to orange, and those over the average to red. That way, everyone knows who produces too much garbage. And that kind of recognition can drive significant changes in behaviour.

All of these ideas provide more direct feedback to consumers, making it easier for people to recongnize their performance and adjust their behaviour accordingly. And, they all avoid direct regulation that limits personal choice.

Do you have any ideas for garbage nudges? Or do you think I'm full of garbage? Let me know in the comments.