design thinking initiatives for a better urban life
Our lives are filled with choices. From the rare and complicated to the mundane, we venture through life moving from decision to the next. Often we take our time to consider our options, choosing the path that provides maximum utility; however, many of our decisions are made with little thought to cost or consequence. When taken alone these decisions can be overlooked, but if these decisions reveal a pattern across a community they magnify into material harm. Trashy Behavior is a project determined to shift trash choices toward more sustainable solutions and improve our world, a community at a time.
When I began this project, I was interested in investigating these individual decisions that create a network of consequence in our cities. By bringing together urban planning and design with the field of Behavior Science I believed I could identify a specific moment of individual choice that is replicated often enough that any shift in behavior could have a material impact. With the guidance of two behavioral scientists, Todd Rogers and Erin Frey, I began considering moments such as commuting choice, shopping behavior and digital mapping; however a daily interaction with a public display of bad design took me in an unexpected path.
In Chauhaus, our cafeteria at the GSD, I noticed how difficult it was to decide where to throw my trash. The large, public trash station seemed designed with proper sorting in mind, but had little understanding of behavior. The signage was a confusing mess of small images including both what does and does not go in each bin. Conversations with my peers confirmed that I wasn’t alone in my confusion, so I decided to observe the pattern for scientifically. After indiscreetly filming the trash station during several lunch rushes, I was not surprised to see person after person showing signs of confusion. A 2010 waste audit at the GSD confirmed my suspicion that when people are confused, they default to the easiest option, the trash bin. Here was my opportunity to test my theory that relatively small interventions could scale across a community for noticeable change.
Knowing little about waste I sought out the expertise of Robert Gogan, the director of Recycling and Waste Services at Harvard as well as Trevor O’Brien, GSD Building Services at member of the Harvard Green Team. Realizing that I could not intervene without a personal understanding of my own habits, I created a commitment device known as Trashless Tuesdays. Similar to Meatless Mondays, my goal was to stop producing trash at least one day a week, a 15% reduction in my own waste footprint. I then created a plan for intervention and scheduled a new waste audit to test our results. The most obvious intervention was to redesign the trash station at Chauhaus. I did this by simplifying the display to show only what went in the Recycle and Compost bins and attaching the negative association of the giant word “Landfill” to the trash bin. However, I also knew that a significant amount of trash was improperly disposed of in the rest of the building, away from the Chauhaus trash station. To shift this behavior I decided on a public awareness campaign of stickers placed in conspicuous locations around the GSD. Using behavioral techniques such as anchoring, social norms, and self-perception theory these stickers were intended to prompt conversation and awareness. Each of the stickers included the message “Trash is a Choice” along with the twitter hash tag, #trashlesstuesdays, in the hope that this might translate into a digital conversation as well.
The week of rollout I recorded the lunch rush at the Chauhaus station and saw a more efficient use of the station. I also scheduled conducted a waste audit in the Pit at the GSD. This very public display of our trash was met with conversation and even outright consternation. Despite this being the trash produced by our community in the GSD, this was now a “biohazard”. The audit served its purpose as public shaming and performance art as crowds stood around watching their peers dressed like lab technicians dig through and resort their trash. The interventions were successful in producing a material behavior change, as we saw a 40% increase in composting accuracy and a 140% increase in recycling accuracy!
It is certainly a success to have this kind of behavior change in a controlled environment, but how can we impact trashy behavior more universally. One option I have begun to consider looks at the 100 million tons of building and construction materials we throw in landfills every year. Taking a cue from the shadow boxes at Chauhaus, what if we knew what was in every building and whether it was recyclable or reusable before demolition? How could this impact the behavior of the development and building trades? Could we create a more efficient market for these products and shift global behavior away from disposable materials to reuse? I don’t know the answers yet, but my experience this semester gives me reason to hope that with simple interventions our behavior doesn’t have to be so trashy.