Using the nudge theory to Go Green, NYC

2017 was the year that the father of the “nudge” theory won the Nobel Prize in Economics.  It’s a theory that says if you make the better option the simpler option, more people will do it by default.  As such, I can’t help but contemplate some simple nudges we can all make at home to reduce the amount of garbage we send to landfills and the amount of plastics we use.

  1. Re-purpose your large garbage bin into a recycling bin, designate a separate container for food waste and a different, smaller one for garbage.  This set up makes it likelier for your family to compost food scraps and recycle and you’ll be surprised by how little “trash” you actually have to take out each week.
  2. If you live in an apartment in New York City, chances are your building is eligible for the NYC organics collection program.  Ask your building manager, condo/co-op board or superintendent to make it happen.  Even tenants can make a difference!  It’s a matter of time before composting will be mandatory anyway, so let’s start now.  Once the bins arrive, there’s no need to plan to take your compost to farmer’s markets, green gardens etc…just take it to the bin in your building.  It may be just the nudge your busy neighbours need to start composting as well.
  3. Ever gone grocery shopping thinking you had enough re-usable bags, when you really didn’t (pesky impulse purchasese…)?  One solution is to take one of your largest reusable bags (mine is a behemoth from IKEA), fold it down small and fasten with an elastic (“rubber band” for all the Americans).  Place it with the “usual” reusable bags you take grocery shopping, and pull it out if needed.  Yes, large bags can get heavy, but most NYC stores offer delivery, or you can take a taxi or subway home.
  4. Buy bamboo toothbrushes and keep them where you keep your family’s new toothbrushes.  Next time you need a new toothbrush, the greener choice will already be there.  Need new razors?  Buy a stainless steel safety razor and blades to make the swap.
  5. Buy extra baking soda and vinegar to keep with your cleaning supplies.  Once you run out of your usual household cleaners, you already have a substitute that is effective and safe for all of your scrubbing needs.

With a little planning and organization, the new set-up becomes the new normal.

And how about some opportunities for the retail sector to help customers make better choices:

  1. The Loblaw family of stores in Canada is using a nudge to sell imperfect produce.  Their “naturally imperfect” apples, peppers, carrots and cucumbers (the ones that are just as nutritious, but don’t look as pretty as their usual grocery store counterparts) sit side by side with the perfect ones for a better price.  Some of these fruits and veggies may not have been harvested to begin with, so this program also gives farmers an opportunity to reduce food waste at the farm level.  Grocery stores across Europe have been experimenting with similar lines.  Hey Fairway, Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s, Gristedes…who is paying attention?  Now if only they could brand it without using plastic bags…
  2. What if all grocery stores replaced plastic produce bags with fully compostable produce bags?  Consumers could reuse them for their own organics collection and less plastic would end up in landfill and our oceans.
  3. Charging a nominal fee for single use items – think beyond plastic shopping bags, to dry cleaner bags, coffee cups, take-out bag, etc.  New York City almost passed a law in 2017 to charge 5 cents per plastic bag, which unfortunately didn’t go through.  Starbucks currently offers a 10 cent discount for customers bringing their own cups. What if, instead, the barista asked “will you be using your own cup today” and charged you 10 cents if you forgot your cup?   You might be more likely to bring your own cup. And how about a water bottle tax?  New York City has some of the best tasting tap water in the US (have you been to New Jersey?).  Don’t get me started…
Photo by Chris Allen

So these are some nudges we could easily use in the US, but what about a full on attack on waste?  In 2017, ABC Australia aired a multi-part documentary called “The War on Waste” which has caused Australians to wake up and get on board with their own waste reduction strategies.  Sadly, I can’t seem to find full episodes to watch Stateside, but have thoroughly enjoyed the You Tube previews getting people to bring their own coffee cups, and wondering why apples and bananas must adhere to such a high standard of beauty to be considered “sellable” in grocery stores.  The War on Waste podcast is available on iTunes.  I sincerely hope what ABC USA is looking at a US version of the same.  Let’s start our own Revolution.


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