Ocean Mist

Issues and trends shaping our environment, health and economy

23 Jul 2016

The impacts of imposing behaviour change

Posted by Michael Keating

By Eric Hellman

This is the seventh in a series of articles on how we can create change more effectively, by my associate Eric Hellman, co-founder of the first Blue box recycling program and creator of a new initiative called “conscious change.”

In my previous article, I wrote about shifting from a “should or have to” attitude to an “I want to” approach towards sustainability. That means helping people find internal motivations that they want to act on. In this article, I’ll explore a practical situation of behaviour change and how our best intentions can create problems, if we leave out people’s thoughts, feelings and experiences.


A Major Goal to go Green

Six months ago, I moved from one major Canadian city to another. My new community deeply values nature and the environment, so much so that its goal is to become the greenest city in the world by 2020. To accomplish this, the city has taken many initiatives, including promoting LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) buildings, district heating, installing electric vehicle charging areas in city parks, expanding bike lanes and acting on climate change. It is moving towards zero waste, local food, a green economy and 100 per cent renewable energy. In order to “drive up the regional recycling rate” the city banned a number of waste materials, including paper and organic/food materials, from the landfill. And that is where my story begins…

“What do I do with this, dear?”

When I arrived here, I stayed for a time in my mother’s condo building while looking for a new apartment. Because of my background in recycling, she would occasionally ask, “What do I do with this waste item? Is it for garbage or recycling?” My response was, “I’m not sure, Mum. It’s different in each city. Let me see I can find out.” So I went to the city’s website to see if they had more information. And it was there that I entered the black hole.

On their website is a feature called the Waste Wizard. (Many cities now have something similar.) You type in your waste item, in this case an ice cream carton, and it tells you what to do with it. However, this brought up only two options: frozen dessert container or plastic ice cream. Since ours was paper, it clearly wasn’t the latter, but I wasn’t sure it was the former either. So I tried different words, trying to determine the right action. I then did the same for each item my mother (and some of her neighbours) asked me about: milk cartons, different types of plastic wrap and bags, facial tissues, hard plastic items without recycling codes and so on. Sometimes the “Waste Wizard” could answer, sometimes not. It reminded me of how complex recycling has become.

The next thing my mother had concerns about was the new food waste recycling program. Building residents had been given strict instructions NOT to mix any “green waste” with their garbage. However, many were upset because some people were still putting food scraps into the garbage bin. Stories were spreading that if green waste was discovered in garbage, the building could be fined or it’s not collected. This is also what people had heard on TV, and many were feeling paranoid that the “garbage police” were about to descend. My mother and her neighbours weren’t the only ones experiencing problems, however. As I saw other family members across the city, many shared their own stories of problems about what and how to recycle.

 Garbage bin sign






What can we learn from all this?

With the goal of going green, it would seem to make sense to ban certain materials from garbage in order to promote recycling. But, the logic begins to disconnect when we consider how people actually respond to such directives. First, think of the word “ban” and what it brings to mind. Is it something positive or negative? If this requires a change in your behaviour, is it something you’d likely want to do, or feel it’s just something you have to do? And if the latter, would you be feeling ticked off, angry or worried if you don’t comply?

Next, think about the types of garbage we are throwing out. Today’s wastes are so diverse and complex that most people don’t know what to do with them. (Consider a potato chip container that contains metal, plastic, paper and a foil wrapper.) Even experts barely know how to recycle some complex wastes. Simply informing the public on a website is not enough, because most people will never (a) know it’s there, or (b) take the time to use it. As a result, everyone is doing recycling “wrong” in some way. With all the instructions, regulations and banned substances in most cities today, it’s literally impossible to keep track of them all. That leads to frustration, guilt, judgment or feelings of ”to heck with it” for people across the system: citizens, building managers, waste collectors, and city staff. Is that really what we want to create?


Going back to the roots of why we’re doing this

What launched our current mass movement to recycle (in Canada, at least) was the Blue Box program. Because of its success, this became the model for many of the multi-material recycling programs across the country and in other parts of the world. However, two main elements of it have frequently been lost along the way: simplicity and inherent motivation.

The first Blue Box project was designed to help people recycle by making it convenient and easy to participate. It was also built on an education program that gave people the information they needed to take part. And, there was one more key ingredient: giving people encouragement and support to contribute to the well-being of our world. It’s supposed to inspire us and make us feel good. This is why “You can make a difference” was the core slogan of the program. We believed that people wanted to recycle, and they did. That was why the blue box took off. It’s also why that language and idea caught on, and grew like wildfire around the world. People really do want to “make a difference.” Think of the energy behind that phrase. Now contrast it with the idea of a ban: “You can’t put your organics or paper into garbage. If you do, you will be fined for not participating.” Both have the goal of diverting waste from landfill; but which one is more alive, empowering and inspiring? Which program would you rather take part in?


We have too much to handle

The complexities of life, and the burden of having too much to do and not enough time to do it, are now exceeding our ability to cope. Recycling should not be adding to this. The goal of diverting more waste is admirable, but when the process leaves people more stressed or frustrated, we’ve missed the deeper objective. When we hear people not knowing what to do, or talking about “garbage police,” these are signs we are going in the wrong direction. That doesn’t mean we never ban or regulate certain actions. But when we do, we also need to consider how it will practically affect people, and how it will leave them feeling. We need to ask questions such as, Will this be more convenient or less? Can people actually do this, and will they? Is it too complex to follow? And perhaps the biggest question is: Would I do this myself?

Recycling, social change, and sustainability aren’t just about getting people to change behaviour. They’re about tapping the natural desire everyone has to care, contribute and make the world a better place. They’re also about encouraging and supporting people to do something that inspires and expresses the best in us and in so doing elevates our sense of humanity.

So how do we do more of that? (Read the whole article here.)


Eric Hellman is a communications and change coach. For more information, see www.consciouschange.info or contact him at erichellman@rogers.com.

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