Organic waste: Sometimes the ‘ain’t broke’ still needs a fix

“If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” and “no need to reinvent the wheel” are favored expressions of people who don’t like change.  And there seem to be a whole lot of  those folks making decisions about organic waste management.

But we’d all be riding around in horse-drawn carts tricked out with wooden wheels if several somebodies hadn’t ignored that advice, moving forward to reinvent and fix what wasn’t broke.

Yet, for some, devising an organics recovery program that makes perfect economic and environmental sense won’t be enough to ensure acceptance and adoption of new methods and technologies.  People will still resist unless highly motivated to change.

But a stronger education effort is not the key to success.

Effecting change on a municipal scale often means developing strategies that will alter deeply entrenched systems and the habits of millions of people.  And that requires much more than the typical public education program, because an estimated 70% of all managed change programs fail.

Whether the charge toward a more sustainable future is being led by a government office, community nonprofit, or dedicated crusader, overcoming “if it ain’t broke” attitudes takes an intentional, well-crafted effort with a loud voice and plenty of motivation. 

Education is not the first step

Unfortunately, too many change promoters put their faith in public education projects when, in fact, the typical education program is likely to flop.

Yes, all of those utility bill stuffers and refrigerator magnets are valuable tools.  But they are only effective after an individual has decided to embrace change.

To win converts, catalysts of voluntary societal shifts must have the motivational insights of B.F. Skinner, the creative audacity of Saul Alinsky, and the patience of Job.

The most successful transformations are achieved over a long period of time using small steps.

They take into account the many stages of change: awareness, consideration, decision, preparation, action, and maintenance.  And when good intentions start to slip, a little reinforcement may be required, as well.

Peoples is peoples

Doesn’t matter whether we’re talking about changing the mindset of a million homeowners, a department head, the town council, or a city’s waste contractor.  They’re all people, and people must first decide to make a change before change can happen.

And that’s where change psychology becomes an essential element in the toolbox of any proponent of change.

The challenge of change management is significant.  While the private sector is slightly more successful than the public, neither has a stellar record.

So when contemplating a program that not only requires the buy-in from politicians, government agencies, and the private sector, but also residents of their respective jurisdictions…

Well, let’s just say herding cats sounds like a walk in the park compared to that formidable task.

Who’s in charge? 

Effecting significant change at any level of government is tough.  One election can wipe out months or years of forward progress, triggering a game of musical chairs that can cause workflow disruptions and priority shifts throughout the organization.

And it doesn’t help that deeply entrenched systems and organizational structures can present even more formidable barriers.

For example, wastewater treatment residuals, food waste, and yard waste are all compostable.  Yet, municipal governments tend to manage these recyclables in different departments, sometimes, with little interdepartmental interaction.

The fate of sludge is determined by public works.  Solid waste oversees garbage.  Yard waste may be handed off to a contractor.

Recycling coordinators who have dedicated years to promoting recycling and backyard composting may lack the departmental muscle needed to rally troops, grab a bigger chunk of the budget, and lead the charge toward source separation and curbside collection.  

Departmental authority within state government can be just as convoluted.  While all organics can be and often are co-mingled and processed at the same composting facility, oversight may be divided up between multiple agencies resulting in requirements for multiple permits.

These are all examples of things that work, but really do need a fix.

How to move a mountain

Confucius said: “The man who moves a mountain begins by carrying away small stones.”

So no matter which departments, civic groups, or individuals decide to pick up the first rock that will (someday) lead to the shift of a mountain of organic waste from disposal to composting, they must be prepared for a long and sometimes arduous undertaking.

But just as important is the willingness of project leaders to –

  • Back burner traditional, education-centric approaches in favor of more successful tactics that include psychological motivations (popularity, peer pressure, etc.).
  • Form coalitions involving other groups with compatible missions to broaden and stabilize the initiative’s base. 
  • Allow the core of the program to be shaped by the community (as opposed to a top down dictate) to boost the project’s chances for success. 

The process in which a community considers and accepts change is much the same as an individual.  Awareness leads to contemplation and evaluation and, ultimately, a decision and correlating action.

Those tasked with the design and/or implementation of community outreach programs that require the change of long-held mindsets and habits may want to thumb through a book or two on the topic before committing thoughts to paper.

Another option is to bring in a change management specialist to help structure the campaign.

Like the old man who plants row after row of saplings for a forest he will never live to see, those seeking to change the status quo may move thousands of stones without making any real progress in shifting the mountain.  

But it’s a beginning, and that effort eases the workload for those who will follow.

The important thing is that someone decides to become an agent of change, to craft a different approach, to fix the ain’t broke, to work toward making organic waste management better.

For the town you call home, will that someone be you?