Nudging at the University of Singapore

If you haven’t read Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein’s Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth, and Happiness, you really ought to. There’s nothing too amazing here in terms of the economics, but the applied policy and planning implications and the book’s accessibility make it a real contribution to the conversation about how we have to learn to live together in cities. They also keep a very informative blog about policies and designs that help people make pro-social choices.

They posted the other day about Singapore University’s effort to help people make recycling foolproof. It’s worth a glance–contamination in recycling is a huge issue, and while those of us who spend our lives studying the environment focus on recycling* whenever we have materials in our hands, anybody can have a bad, distracted day and throw the wrong stuff in the wrong bin–which, depending on how it’s handled, can contaminate a much larger amount of recycling than you would expect. (Recyclers make their margin working in volume, and they don’t have time to go sorting for where the food contamination in the paper begins and ends, so one slip-up can screw up a lot of recyclable material simply because it disrupts batches).

*A story from my really early teaching career at Virginia Tech. I had a class full of great students, with two guys I refer to fondly as meatheads–good guys, both of them, but they were burned out on school and alienated by what they felt was the assumed liberalism of their fellow environmental students. One of them got up before class and threw his water bottle in the trash instead of recycling. One of his female peers–one of my all-time favorites students who is both unbelievably gifted and of whom I am embarrassingly fond—said “You can put that in the recycling right there.” He just rolled his eyes and sat down, and so she got up, took the bottle out the trash, and hucked it at the back his head where it THUCK! bounced off and into the air in what I am sure was a most gratifying fashion. It was with great difficulty and through guffaws that I had to do my teacherly duty and say “Now, that wasn’t (hee!) the right (haw!) thing (chortle!) to do, now was it?”