“75% of the American waste stream is recyclable”
Source:Environmental Protection Agency
“Americans make more than 200 million tons of garbage each year, enough to fill Yankee Stadium from top to bottom twice a day. “
Source:Environmental Protection Agency
Americans make more than 200 million tons of garbage each year, enough to fill Yankee Stadium from top to bottom twice a day. Average Americans throw away nearly 7 pounds of trash every day. EPA estimates that 75% of the American waste stream is recyclable, but we only recycle about 30% of it. Take paper for example. Every year Americans use around 680 pounds of paper and if we could just recycle a single day’s worth of the New York Times we could save 75,000 trees or more. 91% of plastic lands in the dump. And as a nation, we throw away enough glass to fill enough tractor trailers to stretch from NYC to San Fran and back. To no one’s surprise, recycling is one of the best ways each and each of us can make a positive and significant impact on the world in which we live.
Recycling is something in which we all have a role to play. It’s one of the easiest ways we can contribute to protecting our environment - but when it comes to recycling at home, there often seems to be a mismatch between our good intentions and our actions. All around the world, less than a third of us recycle at home. I was given the challenge by a prospective employer to think about how we might nudge people to incorporate better recycling habits into their daily routine. In less than 24 hours, I was expected to produce a 7 slide deck with two preliminary solutions describing my process, a high-level 3-month project plan, initial ethnographic research, research plan and interview questions containing interview quotes from at least 2 participants and a synthesis of my findings.
My first step was to apply positive deviance and look for places where recycling was going really well. Having lived in Germany for over a year and taking note of their exemplar recycling program, my gut instinct was to go there. Germany has the best recycling rates in the world. German concentrates its efforts on individual pre-sorting and infrastructure development.
Next, I looked to the golden state of California, a model for the rest of the United States. Californians have developed a multi prong approach rooted in rigorous k-12 education and a historical legacy of natural resource conservation. Finally, I considered the extreme outlier, NYC. where mental models on garbage diverge significantly from the former two. By examining mainstreams and extremes, I was able to glean keen insights into the human behavioral challenges prohibitive to a sweeping adoption.
My next approach was to look to useful analogous situations where people sorted things in the home. My natural go-to was laundry. I wanted to learn more about household routines. When crafting my interview questions, I wanted to be sure not to ask leading questions. Instead, I opted for question like: “
We are interviewing to learn more about typical household routines. Can you tell me about your routine around taking out the trash?
When is garbage pick up?
Who is responsible for taking out the trash?
Thinking about my laundry analogy, I wanted to ask questions such as:
Can you recall the last time you did the laundry?
Describe your laundry routine
How often do you do laundry?
Take me through the entire experience of doing the laundry
Finally, I thought an open and closed card sort activity might also be useful. The closed sort idea was to use images of typically discarded items and ask participants to place the card into the appropriate pre-sort bucket labeled: Plastic, Paper, etc. For open sort, I wanted to have items that are difficult for many such as mixed materials items, etc. I wanted a window into, what some people have described, as an anxiety ridden experience of recycling sorting.
Perhaps my biggest insight is that people are willing to sort things when there is a perceived immediate consequence. Think back to the laundry analogy. Pink socks coming out of the washer is a real thing. It discourages us from just throwing everything into the wash.
Other insights included notions of unwillingness and effort, processes seen as too complicated or burdensome, assumptions about incentives and value, the proverbial demand for more education, and the gulf between public and private. For example, if a survey asked,
“Where do you feel you make the most impact in the world?”:
b. at work;
c. through relationships,
I wonder how many would check “home”. I also learned that New Yorkers are overworked as it is. Average New Yorkers can work 2-3 jobs, so recycling can’t feel like, yet another chore. Drawing from the Germany example, I learned that companies can make a greater impact in how consumers sort and discard waste.
Though I ultimately did not land the position, I learned so much more about how prospective employers think about job titles like UX researcher, design strategist and design thinking, which helped me to better explain my strengths and skillsets. My high level approach examined multiple points of entry within the system of recycling, ultimately landing on the relationships between manufacturers and consumers as the touchpoint for further exploration.