[Ecoaction] Nudging For A Greener Workplace

by Chandra Clarke

At our office, one of our staff members was very frustrated with the lack of recycling compliance. Every day, she’d open the garbage bin to find perfectly recyclable items destined for landfill, and she was fed up with fishing them out and cleaning them up. Putting up posters hadn’t improved the situation, and neither had bringing it up at staff meetings. I suggested that we change the interface.

We rearranged the break room so that the bins closest to the door were the recycling bins, and shoved the garbage bin all the way to the back of the room. And lo and behold, recycling compliance went up dramatically, without another word said.

Yes, it really was that simple!

I knew this was going to work as we had already done something similar with the original office layout. Office work is sedentary work by definition, and we wanted people to get up and move from time to time. So we decided not to put garbage pails beside everyone’s desk. If you wanted to tidy up your desk, you had to actually get up and take any refuse to the break room. If we had put pails everywhere, it would have been too easy just to dump stuff from a seated position. I also suspect, it would have encouraged more waste generation.

There are two principles at work here. One comes from the book Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness. The book describes the concept of choice architecture, which is where a system is designed to give people a choice in what they do, but it is set up in such a way that the system designer’s preferred choice is the easiest to pick. Grocery stores do this all the time. When they want a particular item to sell well, they make sure it is placed at eye level on the shelves. You, the consumer, can still choose items that you have to stretch for or bend down for, but chances are, you’ll pick the majority of your items from those optimal level shelves.

The trick, of course, is finding the balance. Make something too inconvenient, and people will find a way to shortcut in a way that doesn’t line up with your goals. Had we eliminated our break room garbage bin completely, I suspect we’d find garbage dumped in the sink, or left to get moldy in desk drawers. Locally, I’ve seen pictures of fast food drive-thrus where staff eliminated garbage bins, and there’s waste just thrown all over the ground. Not cool.

The second principle has to do with shame. Haranguing people, shaming them, rarely works to change behaviour. Mostly, it just makes them feel bad, and it may even cause them to hide what they’re doing, but it doesn’t stop them from doing it. That’s why those shouty office posters get ignored, or worse, defaced with graffiti. It’s better to change the interface, or find ways to encourage good behaviour.

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