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Waste Behavior

Timeline
September - November 2016
Tags
Research
Behavioral Science
Sustainability
Description
I watched people throw away trash for months!

Background

Bloomberg invests a significant amount of resources into a major sustainability initiative. The company provides compostable and recyclable items in the pantries, in addition to training employees on their new hire orientation date how to properly dispose waste. Unfortunately, opening any trash bin at random in an office would reveal incorrectly sorted items.
If the company is providing the system and materials to dispose of waste in the most environmentally-friendly way, then what is blocking the program’s success?
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How might Bloomberg encourage employees to sort responsibly?
A typical waste station at a Bloomberg office. It includes compost, landfill, paper recycling and plastic recycling.
A typical waste station at a Bloomberg office. It includes compost, landfill, paper recycling and plastic recycling.
An example of what some of the bins frequently consist of - a mix of compostable, recyclable and landfill items. The green bin on the left is compost, and the black bin on the right is plastic and metal recycling. Note that they contain almost the same items, despite having different requirements for sorting.
An example of what some of the bins frequently consist of - a mix of compostable, recyclable and landfill items. The green bin on the left is compost, and the black bin on the right is plastic and metal recycling. Note that they contain almost the same items, despite having different requirements for sorting.

Research & Insights

Before I jumped to conclusions, I wanted to gather behavioral data that had been previously unrecorded at the firm.
 
I stationed myself for one month near a main waste station at the same time every day. From 9 - 10 AM (a popular time to eat breakfast) each waste incident was recorded. This included which bins were opened, how many items were thrown out, and if they were sorted correctly.
 
At the end of that month the data spoke for itself: users were opening 1.18 bins on average per waste instance, but were only correctly sorting 51% of the time. This indicated that employees were attempting to sort, but was doing so incorrectly about half of the time.
 

Design

With my new insights, I designed several signs to sit above the key waste bins to guide users towards proper sorting. On the bottom of each sign were large green arrows pointing to the bin below, indicating where each item belonged. For the sake of simplicity, I focused on the compost and plastic recycling bins as those had the highest rate of incorrect waste.
 

Compost

Since most of the waste was from the Bloomberg pantry, I used those items to design a place setting with the relevant items. Since the company-provided hot lids were not compostable, a portion of this sign was dedicated to the removal of the lids from the compost bin.
notion image

Plastic Recycling

The recycling bin typically consisted of two items: the hot lid, and a water bottle brought from outside.
notion image
 

Results

Once the signs were implemented, another month of data collection occurred with the same conditions (every day from 9 - 10 AM).
 
While the number of bins opened per waste instance remained relatively constant at 1.2, correct sorting improved to 81%. This was tested at a 95% confidence interval and found to be statistically significant. This allows us to conclude that we have assisted employees in sorting trash correctly, while not inconveniencing them any further.
 
This study was presented to the board of facilities at Bloomberg’s headquarters. Unfortunately, it did not successfully change the office’s waste stations. Following this disappointment, an *anonymous* employee printed out these signs and placed them on 10 different floors' waste stations without approval, and a portion of them still remain today (nearly 5 years later).