During the last week of September, my colleague Stefanie Pruegel (pictured left) and I (pictured right) donned orange safety vests and set out before sunrise to study recycling program participation in various neighborhoods in Livermore, California. Armed with headlamps, clipboards and maps, we walked some 20 miles over five days and flipped about 2,000 recycling and organics cart lids.
This walkabout was part of our observational research to gain insights into residents’ recycling and composting habits, including contamination patterns (i.e., putting things in the wrong carts). The data we gathered will also measure the baseline participation rate. Repeating this measurement after an outreach campaign will allow us to compare the results and determine how successful we were as well as guide the next phase of outreach. This particular kind of measurement can be a messy job, but someone’s gotta do it.
During our lid-flipping adventures, several patterns emerged:
• Livermore loves pizza and is confused about leftovers. In Livermore, the proper process is to chuck pizza boxes and leftovers into the Organics (compost) cart. Pizza boxes are considered food-soiled paper (as are most fast food paper wrappers), and pizza crusts are considered food scraps – all of which goes into Organics. However, we found households were evenly split over whether to put the box in Recycling or Organics.
• Livermore is a thirsty bunch, and cup sorting is a challenge. What is the preferred destination for takeout cups, lids and straws? These items are made of both plastic and paper, and each needs to be handled differently. This leads to a lot of consumer confusion. We found that no matter if the cups were for cold drinks (plastic) or hot drinks, (paper) the majority ended up in the recycling cart, along with their lids and straws. But, the lids and straws actually go into the garbage, and the paper cups go in the organics. This kind of contamination adds considerable expense for waste haulers and ultimately can drive up trash rates. (Please Note: This is a general observation and not a prediction for Livermore.)
• Livermore has beautiful yards, and sorting the waste is a conundrum. Throughout the week we “ooh-ed” and “ah-ed” at the beautiful yards and landscaping in the neighborhoods we saw. However, many residents seemed to assume that anything from the yard belongs in the Organics cart. In fact, certain items like pet waste belongs in Garbage, not Organics. Putting whatever blows (or gets pooped) in people’s yards into the Organics cart causes another costly contamination headache.
We saw some clear consistencies in what was going right and wrong in the carts. Next we will tabulate our findings, design an outreach campaign to focus on the most prevalent behaviors that need to change, and afterwards, check those carts again. We look forward to helping the city and the citizens of Livermore “sort out” any issues and move forward with their waste reduction goals.
This idea is unfortunate because it can cause you to become discouraged and to give up on outreach. The reality is quite different from this bleak perspective; the number of people walking around with the “don’t care” point of view is actually very small.
Don’t Let One Bad Apple Spoil the Party
Say you have four relatives coming over for dinner: Grandma Sadie, Uncle Burt, Aunt Priscilla and Cousin Chester. Sadie adores pastry and is an avid cook; Burt and Priscilla both enjoy some form of dessert regularly; Chester hates anything sweet after meals. You could spend the whole day lamenting the fact that Chester won’t like your apple pie and eventually decide to skip dessert altogether. Or you could make the darned pie and delight as the other three gobble it down with glee!
What’s this got to do with environmental outreach, you ask?
“Unconcerneds” by the Numbers
In 2006 the Natural Marketing Institute segmented the U.S. population by degree of concern for environmental issues, and found that approximately 16% falls into the LOHAS (Lifestyles of Health and Sustainability) segment, the deep green consumers that are passionate about environment and socially responsible business.
Only 14 percent of the population fell into the Unconcerned category.
The Natural Marketing Institute defines “Unconcerneds” as “unconcerned about the environment and society” and “dealing with day-to-day challenges.” These are not the folks to be marketing much of anything to, much less the complex and long-horizon topic of environmental behavior change. If these people are the only ones who could accurately be described as “not caring,” that leaves 86% who do care! As it turns out, 41% care a lot (these are the so-called LOHAS and Naturalite segments). Now isn’t that a more inspiring view of the world?
The idea that people don’t care can become an excuse for not trying, for turning away from outreach to more punitive or technology-based solutions: for giving up on people’s better nature. The fact is, the vast majority of people do care to some degree or another, and with research, careful messaging and loads of patience, change is possible. So cheer up and pass the pie!