Studies conducted by the University of British Columbia (UBC), Canada, has shown that recycling rates are improved by the convenient placement of bins. Placing recycling or compost bins 1.5 metres away from doors increased recycling and composting rates by 141%.
This study shows how minor changes in convenience can have an exponential effect on sustainability and recycling. “We know people care about the environment but having the desire to recycle and compost doesn’t always translate into behaviour changes,” says the study’s lead author and a PhD student in the UBC department of psychology, Alessandra DiGiacomo.
While the results may be predictable, the study still proves beyond doubt that the placement of recycling bins is an important factor in getting people to recycle more. “Perhaps unsurprisingly, we found that people composted and recycled much more when we made it more convenient,” says DiGiacomo.
How the placement of bins study was conducted
People like things that are easier. Similar studies have shown that people are more likely to choose healthier food options if they are more conveniently placed in supermarket aisles and near the tills. The UBC researchers used this theory to test the impact on recycling and composting.
During the study, the researchers placed recycling bins in three different locations in three apartment buildings in Vancouver. The bins were placed next to the elevator doors on each floor of the building (most convenient), at the base of the elevator in the buildings, and in the garbage disposal area (least convenient).
Researchers ran the test for 10 weeks, weighing the waste collected in each bin on a weekly basis. They found that the compost bins placed by the elevator doors on each floor had 70% more compostable waste than the bins placed on the ground floor only. This amounted to an extra 27kg of compost per bin that was diverted from landfills during the study.
Similarly, recycling bins placed near the doors of the elevators on each floor had a 141% more recyclable waste than the bins placed on the ground floor. This resulted in an extra 20kg of recyclable waste diverted from landfill per bin.
Small changes can have a large impact
These minor changes in the placement of bins had a significant impact on the recycling and composting rates. “The findings show [that] a minor change in the environment can have a huge impact on behaviour,” explains study co-author and professor in the UBC department of psychology, Jiaying Zhao.
“Traditional views are that we have to educate people about the importance of recycling and composting, but we believe that’s the wrong model because people already know. Simple factors, such as convenience, can be key to helping us become more environmentally friendly,” Zhao states.
This study focuses on some unique aspects of human behaviour, namely that we love convenience. That is why fast-food chains have become so prevalent. These findings can have major implications for waste management policies drafted by national governments. People want to recycle their waste, but they won’t do it if the bins are not easily accessible.
“We call this intention-action gap. What psychologists can do is change the environment a little bit so that our actions can follow through on our intentions. We need to provide solutions and alternatives to current practices to help people recycle and compost more,” concludes Zhao.
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