Waste nudge


These blue and green waste disposal baskets are a shining example of how not to implement behavior change, despite the many underlying good intentions. To their great credit, YCDC’s waste management unit played the color-association game very well, with blue meant to be associated with “wet waste” such as kitchen refuse and the wonderfully culturally-specific  “cast-off shrine plants/flowers” (the flora purchased daily by many devout Buddhists used as offering to the Buddha by placing it upon the household or business’s shrine – but that’s another post for another day…) while the green bin and bag should be associated with “dry waste” such as paper and plastic.

While defining colors in such a way is a prudent approach, that is about where the inspiration ideas run out on their part. First – consider the amount of time (and effort) a typical Yangonite invests in throwing something away. I would argue it usually adds up to less than one second – the amount of time it takes to throw something directly on to the ground. If one is particularly considerate towards the waste collectors, there is a chance that one will wait to dispose of a piece of refuse until they encounter a pre-existing garbage pile in the street or on the sidewalk. As you can imagine, the garbage piled on the sidewalks and streets of Yangon are not all neatly divided into a separate piles of “wet” and “dry” garbage – in fact, there is no past precedent of distinguishing one kind of waste from another. To a typical Yangonite, it is all just “trash” as opposed to “many different kinds of trash thrown into a pile”. Trash piles are just sort of “there” – particularly clustered around higher foot-traffic areas such as shops and bus stops.

In general, the lesser the “leap” one asks of a population in which one hopes to inspire behavior change, the greater the likelihood that people will be willing to make said “leap”. In this instance, asking someone to go from the one-step act of:

1) Throw waste on the ground

to the relatively complex process of:

1) Hold on to waste until one arrives at an appropriate receptacle (and note that there were not many of these things around)

2) Read the directions on the receptacle to interpret in which receptacle the waste belongs (without the aid of pictures or visual aids for at illiterate users)

3) Place trash into the appropriate receptacle (assuming there is space to do so and the receptacle is not overflowing)

As you can see, this approach tries (unsuccessfully, I would argue) to tackle a problem that is more complex than it first appears, and asks a lot of someone who never even considered categorizing garbage into different classes before. Even for those who would be willing to partially buy-in to the idea of disposing of waste in a bin instead of on the ground, thre is a high probability that they’ll simply put it into whichever bin is most convenient (as opposed to stopping their progress along their route to read and interpret the descriptions on each bin and consider how to appropriately classify their particular piece of waste). Now, it is true that once one has read the descriptions and gotten a sense of how to classify waste according to the blue=wet/green=dry system that those rules will likely not change and they will not need to re-learn anything the next time they visit these bins. Still, I argue that getting the buy-in needed to read the directions on their initial visit presents another significant challenge.

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