In today’s consumption society of the western world,many live well and have an abundance of food. On the flip side of this coin are the large quantities of garbage created and who will take responsibility for it. In recent years, consumers have had much of the responsibility to sort out household waste, but this takes time, something today that is in short supply. The question is how much responsibletaking citizens are willing to pay to avoid rinsing and sorting milk cartons everyday. Or is sorting household waste a sort of ideal work for a higher purpose?
Political scientist Simon Matti has, together with colleague and economist Christer Berglund, examined the values and attitudes of Swedish households to the sorting of household garbage. Moreover, they have studied within the framework for the research project SHARP the Swedish government policy concerning the sorting of garbage.
A questionnaire to 4.000 households in four Swedish municipalities showed that it is primarily the feeling of being a good citizen that gives the individual Swede motivation and driving force to sort their household garbage – while the government’s environment policy shows that politicians primarily look at and treat the household as a consumer, in other words people who are primarily motivated by economical factors. And since a citizen can be characterised as a sort of team player who thinks about society before his or her own gain, while the consumer only thinks of themselves and their economical benefits, there is a significant difference between the way politicians and households view the sorting of household garbage.
For the sorting of household garbage to work, it is important that the motivation amongst households is based upon the conviction that the work one puts into the sorting supports the environment and thus society in the long-term. This “inner motivation” can, according to Simon Matti, be superseded if an “outer motivation” based on economical means motivates us consumers. Simon Matti points to some examples where behaviour changes drastically when economical means are put in to take of the problem.
At a residence for the elderly, the residents performed small duties like taking care of the dishes and picking up after themselves throughout the residence. Because bed making was a little so-so and the personnel wanted to get them to make their own beds, coffee tickets were introduced as reward to those who did it. The result was that many of the residents indeed began making their beds to a great extent, while they ceased to perform other small duties with the reason that they were not receiving any coffee tickets for those duties.
Another example is a daycare where the staff had problems with parents who did not pick up their children at the time they stated, something that obviously created problems for the personnel and their planning. The daycare leaders, therefore, introduced a fine when parents came too late, something that led to more parents than before beginning to come too late – the moral feeling to “do right” by arriving on time disappeared, since the personal gain was experienced as greater than the fine. Because the fine introduction did not yield the desired results, the daycare leaders removed the fines again – but then parents continued to come too late to a greater extent than before the measure was introduced.
In both examples, the inner motivation had greatly decreased compared to before the reward/fine was introduced. And when the inner motivation disappears, it’s difficult to get it back.
So, back to the sorting of household garbage – the questionnaire that Simon Matti and his colleague sent out illustrated how the motivation of households to sorting household garbage is very much about ethics, and to a lesser extent, that you do what you want if you want others to also do it. From an examination of official environment documents, it is evident that the government looks at households as consumers, something that we already observed as being in glaring contrast to the household’s own view of itself as a citizen.
The conclusion is simple.
The government should take along the household view and motive estimates when a new environmental policy is developed or when new means are introduced. Today, the government is using primarily financial mean, such as fees, taxes, deposit systems, congestion fees and fines.
– Using such methods to bring about a changed behaviour, in the short-term, among Swedish households works well – we know this from experience. But using them to bring about a lasting attitude change regarding environment work is risky, simply because they can also supersede people’s inner motivation, says Simon Matti.
Yes, the majority of us are already that – we make decisions about our daily purchases both based on price and which type of packaging the product is delivered in, such as jam in a glass jar or refill tube.
– Naturally, people consider, like with the rational consumer, price when they shop, but we should not forget that many also commit themselves to an environmental work that doesn’t result in any direct positive effects to personal finances. Above all when it applies to larger questions, like global warming, the same individual can seldom behave as a morally motivated citizen, says Simon Matti.
Already in 2000, professor Marian Radetzki from Luleå University of Technology presented a groundbreaking theory – he stated that the sorting of household garbage was not profitable from a socio-economical perspective, a statement he established in a comparison between the time needed to sort garbage and the hourly wage after taxes. National economist Christer Berglund asked if there are not other values than purely financial – is there not, for example, a value in one possibly feeling like a better person after having spent time in a garbage room and placing all garbage in the correct containers?
To find the answer to his hypothesis, he sent out a questionnaire to 850 randomly chosen households in the small Swedish municipality of Piteå; 71 per cent answered, which can been seen as proof of the engagement people actually have for the question. In his study, Christer Berglund introduces a new variable – green moral index, GMI. This index can be described as the warm feeling that many feel when doing a contribution to the environment. And this is confirmed by the many who answered that they sort household garbage to contribute to a better environment, not because they feel forced or to earn money from it.
What is it then that drives citizens to sort themselves rather than pay to let someone else do the work?
Yes, in Christer Berglund’s study, education and salary do not affect, in any case, the attitude to want to pay to avoid sorting garbage. However, the study shows that the will to pay differs depending on age, sex, housing, and how far is it to the sorting station. Older people and women seem more positive towards sorting household garbage themselves rather than pay to have someone else sort their garbage. House owners have a lower will to pay than those who live in a flat, something that supports the hypothesis that those who have more space for their garbage consider it less troublesome to sort than those with limited space. In line with what one expects, those who have far to the recycling station are more willing to pay to avoid sorting household garbage, and much of this will can be deduced from the individual feeling a moral responsibility to sort for a better environment.
Even though garbage sometimes still ends up in the wrong place. For example, a battery can go down in the compost or an aluminium can gets lost down among the newspapers, small errors due to ignorance or sloppiness. The consequences can be serious – heavy metals from a battery in the compost mean that the earth cannot be used for cultivation and the whole goal with recycling disappears.
While a wrong sorting can have large consequences environment-wise, some Swedish municipalities choose to concentrate on control in the form “garbage spies” and surveillance cameras instead of information and instructions. Think about what would happen to your own motivation if you, when you think you have conducted a good deed for the environment, instead get fined several thousand crowns for placing a bag with newspapers next to a full container, thinking that it is better for the bag to be there than inserted into the wrong container...
To save resources and protect the environment, we should sort our household garbage to an even greater extent than we do today. And it is also probably the biggest motivation factor for sorting household garbage among us citizens – who does not want leave behind a good environment to their children and grandchildren? A dilemma is that good environmental care costs money – it is simply more expensive to recycle great quantities of garbage than to, for example, burn it – so the more we sort, the more expensive it will be. Thus, garbage fees will tend to rise at the same rate as we sort more, which can have as a consequence that many will feel entitled to throw away garbage anyhow – “I still pay for it”. Rising fees can take away some of the motivation that is both there and needed.
TEXT: Lena Edenbrink
RESEARCH: Laura Salo, Anders Gren, Daniel Westling och Annika V Rönnbro
PHOTO: Nicke Johansson
This article was originally published in Good Technology, nr 2, 2007