Thoughts on my final project, pt 2.

I came to my first idea too easily.  And it rang true that I was letting the technology lead me rather than let the idea lead the technology.  So I’ve been thinking a lot.  And while I’m still interested in food waste as a topic, I’d’ like to tie in another thing that I can’t wrap my brain around – human behavior.  It stumps and amazes me that people can behave in ways that they do.  All those racist Trump supporters?  All those KKK members?  All the mass shootings?  I’m human too, and I honestly have no intrinsic understanding of these people’s actions or beliefs.  It’s confusing, infuriating, and astounding.  But if we pull back a bit from extremism to a more mundane, everyday look at human behavior, we all do things that go against what we think our beliefs are.  We’re all hypocrites to an extent.  It’s part of being human.  There’s a seemingly innate ability that we have to segregate parts of our thinking, which sometimes allows for pretty contradictory behavior.  So with this in mind, I thought it’d be interesting to look at a problem of the food system through the lens of human behavior.  Particularly food waste.  Why do people throw stuff away?

We know the stats – in the US 30-40% of the food supply is wasted. Over 97% of that food waste ends up in landfills, emitting 16% of the total methane emitted by landfills, and accounting for 23% of all methane in the US. American households throw away about 25% of the food they buy. One report from the UK suggests that eliminating the methane from food waste would be equivalent to remove 1/4 of the cars from the road. So how do we get people to throw less food away? Maybe compost? Maybe buy less? Eat all your leftovers? And then of course there’s the waste that occurs in the rest of the food chain from growing to distribution to retail.

But I’m particularly interested in the moment of throwing something away. That instant where the banana peel leaves your hand and begins careening towards the bottom of a trash can. It’s often subconscious. It feels innocuous. We don’t give it a second thought. Tossing something to be magically disappeared from our lives. I’m astounded how such a simple act can have such broad implications. It’s that instant, that moment of non-decision, that automatic response to a piece of trash, that I want to focus on.

The instant of letting go is a subconscious one for most people. Some of us, sure, think about that moment. But even those of us who are trying to be environmentally friendly often succumb to the automaticity of tossing something in the trash. We’re so deeply conditioned that it takes quite a deal of conscious effort to overcome that impulse. You can educate and inform, but at the end of the day impulses often win. There remains a disconnect between knowledge and action. Information within a vacuum is easily ignored, or perhaps more accurately, forgotten when the mind becomes preoccupied with the daily rigors of life. The convenience offered by simply tossing something in the trash overrides the understanding of any consequences tied to it. While information and action can exist within one mind, they can easily be segregated for the sake of convenience. It’s a fallacy to believe that we are in full control of our actions.

But here’s the thing – there’s an opportunity to take that moment of impulse and turn into a moment of clarity. Thus linking knowledge and action and making strides towards dismantling the disconnect between the two. Psychology can help us.

Feedback is a powerful contributor to behavior. We reward children when they behave well, and reprimand them at the moment of misbehavior. Positive reinforcement has been shown to be much more effective. Rather than punish for misbehavior, reward good behavior. This can work for adults too. But to be successful we have to provide alternatives to tossing their trash. Alternatives exist already, but for many people are not convenient enough to warrant attention. Composting is a great solution. But in NYC it requires separating your food scraps then taking them to a specific location at a specific time to drop off. There’s no wonder that so few people do it. It’s kind of annoying. My local compost pickup is only near me once a week for two hours. It’s a hard window to hit, and if I miss it I end up with WAY too much food waste in my house. Most of it is egg shells, coffee grounds, and bits and pieces left over from chopped fruits and veggies. But I digress. The alternatives are difficult to provide without infrastructure to support it. Home composting is a romantic idea, but an annoying thing to actually do. So short of providing real alternatives for people, the next best thing is to educate and inform.

Turn that moment of impulse into a moment of clarity. Provide context, information, and really specific consequences at the moment of throwing something away. That banana peel? Well, it used X amount of oil to get it to you (including harvesting, shipping, storing, etc), and will use another x amount of oil transporting it to a landfill, where it will contribute x amount of methane to the environment, potentially raising the global temperature by x degrees. That banana peel has massive implications. Not that one on it’s own, perhaps, but let’s say every New Yorker eats at least 1 banana once a week – that’s about 8 million banana peels per week headed to landfills. All that from the impulse of you tossing your peel. You didn’t think about it. That’s my job. To make you think about it. And that’s what I’m going to try to do.

2 thoughts on “Thoughts on my final project, pt 2.

  1. Katie

    On the topic of human behavior you might find this broadcast about moral disengagement really interesting:

    I think you really hit on something with the idea of positive feedback and also convenience. In his book Stuffed and Starved Raj Patel uses the phrase “anesthetized by convenience” in talking about American consumers. It’s a phrase that I think about a lot because it’s so true. My freezer at home is full of compost scraps, to take to the green market, and I have a worm bin in the corner of my kitchen to dispose of smaller veggie scraps, as well as bags of dried leaves (browns!) stashed in my closet to layer in for the worms. I go through cycles of being hyper aware and carrying all my plastic and glass home to recycle, and all my banana peels, and orange rinds. But then, in NYC, sometimes it’s just too much. On Friday I consciously threw the orange peel from my ITP orange in a trash can, and it’s terrible to admit, but it felt good. I didn’t have to find something to carry it around in to take it home and stash it in my freezer because I can’t feed it to the worms because it’s too acidic. I just got rid of it. Convenience is a really powerful thing to overcome sometimes, and I think positive feedback of some sort if maybe one of the only tools to do that. If I had taken the orange peel home with me, there would have been no positive feedback besides the good feeling I felt knowing I didn’t trash it. But no one was going to pat me on the back. In fact it would just accumulate in the freezer, making it fill up faster, and bringing on the harassment from my husband to take the compost out because the freezer was full of it, faster than if I didn’t bring it home.

    I like the idea of creating awareness about the oil associated with the banana peel, but it’s kind of a downer. Some people would take it to heart, but others would disregard the negative message and morally disengage from it, preferring to be “anesthetized by the convenience” of it.

    What if you could make a compost bin that would give positive feed back. It would be cool if you could hook it up to a vending machine, so when you put in a banana peel you could get a whole piece of fruit or veggie, or coffee voucher, or something that people would want and would encourage them to seek out this compost can.

    1. jcharry Post author

      Hey Katie,

      Thanks so much for the feedback. I totally get the feeling of relief when you can just toss something. It lifts the responsibility off us to constantly feel like we’re doing the right thing. It gets exhausting for sure. And yea, with things like composting it’s so hard to see any appreciable difference from your actions that it’s super easy to ignore it altogether. I imagine if you’re on a farm, you can watch as your compost transforms to something highly valuable, but in NYC we’re so far removed from the results of our actions that the only motivator to keep us going is an internal voice telling us we’re doing the right thing. There’s no external pat on the back.

      I think you’re right about just presenting the facts being kind of a downer. It’s another thing that people can just choose to ignore, which is all too easy, unfortunately. It seems like the real way to change behavior is to lead people into a new method of behavior by showing them the payoff and making them feel good for doing it. The challenge is that what sustains action is not necessarily external rewards, but internal motivation. External rewards are a great way to push people in a direction, but I think the effect wears off unless the person develops an internal desire to continue doing it whether rewarded or not. I feel like the real way to get people to change is alter the environment they operate in so that it becomes difficult to do the wrong thing. Like banning plastic bags in supermarkets. People weren’t asked to bring their own bag, they’re required to. That’s where the difference really happens. There’s definitely a slippery slope here, and following this it’s logical extreme could be scary, but it’s a powerful mechanism.

      With all that said, I really like you’re idea of a positive compost bin. I’m wondering if there’s a way to attach a positive action happening elsewhere with the compost bin user’s actions. There was this thing that UNICEF did – – where if you didn’t touch your phone for a set amount of time they’d donate money to pay for water for children in impoverished areas. Now obviously I can’t donate money, but what if you composting meant I would, I dunno, plant a tree somewhere, or come to your house and pick up your compost for you, or something. I don’t necessarily have a good idea for what the response should be, but something along the lines of a direct, positive action as a result of you composting. It’s an interesting idea.

      Anyway, thanks so much for commenting, it’s really interesting hear your thoughts!

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