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U Of Recycling: Creative Signage Gives A Nudge

When University of Pittsburgh students weren’t recycling, student Jamie Kimmel designed some new labels to help people realize the consequences of their actions.

U Of Recycling: Creative Signage Gives A Nudge
Think hard. Where would you throw your recycleables? Jamie Kimmel

How do you get people to recycle more? One simple idea: more informative signage.

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Earlier this year, Jamie Kimmel, a senior at the University of Pittsburgh, noticed that students were placing a lot of recyclable cans and bottles in the main garbage, rather than using recycling bins nearby. He says he became interested in why people weren’t using the available options, and concluded that the problem must be informational. After all, campus was “saturated with recycling bins,” as he puts it.

He and his colleagues on the Innovative Economics Initiative–a student group–decided to see if they could “nudge” people to change their behavior: that is, give them more information, so they would choose the recycle bin over the main one. Kimmel describes himself as a fan of behavioral economics, and particularly the book Nudge, by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein.

The experiment went as follows: for an hour a day for two weeks, the students watched two sets of bins without any unusual signage on them. Then, for a further two weeks, they watched bins with big yellow signs on the front. The labels read “Landfill,” and then underneath: “Imperial, PA (17.3 Miles).”

The results were interesting (though, it should be be said, the sample size was not enormous). The addition of the yellow sign increased recycling rates by 29 percent. “The change was a lot more dramatic than I thought it would be,” says Kimmel, who reckons the effect was larger on females, than males.

He says the group wanted the sign to do two main things: one, to give people a sense of where their garbage would end up, and two, to inspire a certain local kinship.

“We were hoping to attach some sort of regional responsibility, saying that the landfill is actually pretty close-by, so you might be negatively affected. We wanted to say: if you chose to recycle, you might help out Pittsburgh.”

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The simplicity, and relatively non-hectoring nature of the sign was also important.

“Originally, we thought of having a picture of a landfill and saying ‘This is a local landfill. Keep Pittsburgh Clean!’, or something. But then we thought, How many people would stop to read a label like that? Maybe the environmentally conscious would read it. But our target is people who don’t usually care about recycling.”

Kimmel says the group is now thinking of doing a larger experiment focusing on the regional element, comparing one set of bins with the full sticker, and another with the landfill stats removed.

He also wants to take the idea to the University itself–which maybe could do with his help. This year, U of Pitt took part in a nationwide university recycling competition, coming in 164 out of 288 schools. Its recycling rate was 26.16% (the overall national rate is about 34 percent). California State-San Marcos came out on top with 79.69%, with the University of Memphis on the bottom, with just 1.18%. Perhaps it’s time to send them some landfill signs.

About the author

Ben Schiller is a New York staff writer for Fast Company. Previously, he edited a European management magazine and was a reporter in San Francisco, Prague, and Brussels.

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