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.