Monday, October 25, 2010

Guest Blog #4: Michelle Price - Closing the gap

The Graham Environmental Sustainability Institute Doctoral Fellows have been having a wonderful discussion about trash, waste and society, and Michelle Price, a PhD student in Applied Physics, posted a provocative thought the other day, which I wanted to share...

"Reading through the many weighty points made in the previous posts, I think we can all agree on two main points. First, a sustainable society of the future requires the majority of individuals to embrace [zero-waste] lifestyles. Second, today’s society makes this type of lifestyle inaccessible to most people without extensive effort, and most people will not make this effort. If our goal is to minimize waste generation on a massive scale, the question our generation has to answer then becomes, “How do we close the gap between the effort required to reduce waste and the effort people are willing to put into this?”

In a cursory attempt to identify a solution framework, I tried to think of something in our society that the vast majority of people do, even if it takes extra effort. The most relevant example I came up with was littering (probably since I’ve been thinking about trash so much lately). With just a few exceptions, when someone in our society generates trash, he or she will hold on to the item until they find a trash can to throw it in. In a discussion about how to minimize trash in the first place, this may not seem very impressive; nevertheless, it represents a societal norm that was successfully developed by closing the “effort expended” vs “effort required” gap (emphasis added). Without having studied the issue in any depth, I can identify two things that made this possible: first, just about every little kid in America learns the phrase “Don’t be a litterbug!” in grade school. Second, in most public places you’re generally never more than a handful of steps from a trash can.
So how can we get people to do things like flip light switches, sort garbage, and choose trash-free options without any more thought than holding onto a paper cup until they find a trash can to throw it in? Do we have to add an “environmental impacts” requirement to mandatory public education that already includes standards on reading, writing, mathematics, science, sexual education, foreign languages…? Sponsor external programs to come to classrooms and educate children about environmental issues in the same way visiting police officers reach out through the DARE program? Perhaps the more difficult obstacle will be, how do we decrease the effort required to go waste-free? Part of this will certainly necessitate changes in how we shop for groceries, order food and keep our rolls of toilet paper from getting wet or contaminated between the time they’re produced and the time they’re sitting safely under the bathroom sinks in our homes. How do we handle these issues in a way that doesn’t oppress society with large expenses, require vast energy inputs to collect and sort re-usables as opposed recyclables, and maintains our society’s high degree of hygiene?"

~Michelle Price

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