Is your composting program stuck in a rut?

Traditionally, education designed to alter behaviors has focused on attitude adjustment.  But the primary motivators of modern societies suggest a composting program might be more successful if proponents tried psychologically-based persuasions, instead.

Is your community’s composting program stuck in the mud?  We humans do seem to like our ruts, contentedly wallowing in an ever-deepening track even as it fills with muck and water.

Most of us are slow to adapt and adopt, even when newer options offer advantages (including cost) over existing practices or models.  In fact, psychologists say humans need to see at least twice the benefit to abandon the status quo and try something new.

Understanding the psychology behind decision-making may not simplify the task, but it can help pro-composting activists build stronger cases for a better composting program with both decision-makers and the community at large.

Enter the field of behavioral economics

At its best, behavioral economics uses human nature to encourage people to make better choices.

One example is positioning the preferred option as the “default” and requiring the individual to take action to “opt out” of the most cost-effective and/or environmentally-preferred service.  It is a tactic that works and works well.  In fact, some suggest psychological/behavioral agents of change are more effective than those using education to shift attitudes.  

Behavior analysts say little “nudges” like better signage, different lids, or repositioning trash and composting bins can increase recycling rates and improve a composting program without punitive or costly measures. (This report contains examples of behavioral change strategies that might be suitable for your composting program.)

Unfortunately, like so many other avenues of research, behavioral studies specific to composting are sorely lacking.  But we can see the strength of psychological and behavioral persuasion all around us.

Using the power of peer pressure

Consider the power of peer pressure and social media “influencers.”  Even though everyone knows influencers – those with a high number of followers on LinkedIn, Facebook, etc. –  may have been paid big bucks to plug a specific product or service, using influencers is still a successful tool for marketers.  

Why?  Because people listen to people they like and trust.  We also embrace the popular, a phenomenon known as “the bandwagon effect.”

So, the obvious question is:  How can the industry make composting more popular?

If we are to believe current thinking, it’s no longer enough to simply stand by and wait for the cream (i.e., composting) to rise to the top.  In today’s world, distribution is king.

When reminders are visible, numerous, and frequent, people tend to be more mindful and more willing to try something new … especially if their favorite people are doing it, too.

For an example of what one West Coast city tried to deliver a message, check out this composting food waste campaign targeting foodies.

How do your community’s efforts compare?

Even during Compost Awareness Week, were your town’s busiest thoroughfares lined with big, eye-catching reminders or did you settle for a press release and a smattering of ICAW posters hung in obscure places? 

Combating the convenience factor

Disposable diapers are the third highest consumer item landfilled, with 95% of mothers using disposable instead of cloth.  Each year, Americans spend more on paper towels than the rest of the world combined.  

About 1/3 of the population eats fast food every day – and that number is rising, too. And while the tons of MSW diverted to composting/recycling are inching up, so are total waste generation volumes.

Obviously, the U.S. is a nation that likes its convenience.

Convenience is a driving force behind the growth of e-commerce.  And almost all of us, at one time or another, have opted out of something simply because it wasn’t convenient.

Whether trying to introduce composting to a household, a school, a business, or a city, success will rest on a foundation that recognizes human nature and focuses on convenience.

When drop locations can only be reached by traveling an hour through heavy traffic (true story), they won’t be used.  

Compare this to one high-rise where a simple change – pulling all the bins from the ground floor and dividing them up so there were bins each floor – increased composting rates by 70%.

If distribution is king for spreading the word and increasing popularity, convenience is king for facilitating action.

Reward spurs action

Reward is a powerful human motivator.   Money, a gold medal, 1000 likes, a chocolate chip cookie – people will do just about anything if the reward is right.

While the EPA does not include backyard composting in its collection of MSW statistics, one survey suggests the number of households with a compost pile in the backyard may be quite low.  

The sort-of-good news is that a comfortable majority of Americans now favor composting.  Unfortunately, most of those same folks say they are not willing to make composting happen if it’s not convenient.  They aren’t willing to pay more for it, either.

As a motivator, it seems the reward of a healthier environment will struggle to overcome inconvenience and higher cost.

So, where does that leave composting?  What reward must be dangled before a reluctant public?

While communities wrestle with these heady questions, there’s one more influence that could be the factor that finally pulls all organics out of the disposal rut.

Changing of the guard

Senior managers and decision-makers in both the public and private sectors are edging toward and into retirement.

For the first time in history, the people moving into and advising those offices belong to a generation of kids who probably studied composting in elementary school, learned about environmental issues throughout their K-12 education, and witnessed Earth Day celebrations every year of their collective lives.

An article in Waste Advantage magazine says 43% of Millennials and Gen-Zers already compost.  And whether they compost or not, more than half of Americans are now millennials or younger – age groups that understand what composting is and what compost use can do for soil.

If recent Compost Clueless statements made by high profile individuals are any indication, the same cannot be said for the old guard.  So this particular period of transition could usher in a time of historic change that finally sees common sense triumph over convenience for organic waste management.