The Simpsons vs. Recycling

Wednesday, February 11, 2009


“Can’t someone else do it?” For true Simpsons fans this was a memorable moment in television history. Okay maybe it wasn’t monumental but for environmentalists it was pretty fun. In short, Homer wants to become the sanitation commissioner of Springfield. As he struggles to come up with a slogan he stumbles upon the phrase, “Can’t someone else do it?”, which is likely the most insightful phrase about the human condition when it comes to recycling and waste management.

Now I am sitting here on campus and I am having the worst time in the world trying to comprehend how to get people to recycle. I have just come back from my second meeting today about trying to make people recycle more, and I should add that these meetings were initiated by campus community members (not me).

There is one monumental truth about recycling, it is hard. John Q. Garbagemaker won’t recycle just because the alternative is bad for the environment, or because our landfills are overflowing, or because it is universally accessible. Recycling is simply more difficult than not doing anything and as we all know the majority of people will follow the path of least resistance. The proof is in the pudding, everywhere on campus and around the world garbage abounds and people do little or nothing to stop it.

Update alert! I know that it seems that this post was probably written in one day but I have to confess that it actually took 2. So today I was approached by two more people who want to do more about recycling. One was an employee who wanted more recycling in the office and the other was a student working on a project related to why people don’t recycle more (how ironically appropriate!)

Well here is it, people don’t recycle because it is not convenient; there is no regulatory regime; and there isn’t enough social pressure.

Let’s start with convenience. Yes there are many bins on campus, yes they have labels, yes they are even colour coded. But the system is still confusing; there are several types of paper (fine paper, mixed paper, cardboard, etc…) and each of them goes somewhere else. There are bins outdoors but they have a different look and feel from the ones indoors. The recycling system in residences is different from the one in classrooms, which is different from the ones in offices, which is different from the ones in the cafeteria, and on and on we could go.

Two; regulation regime! What I am talking about? Well when I say regulation I am talking about taxes, about penalties, and about strict rules. There is no big brother watching over you making sure that you recycle the right things. If you choose not to recycle there is no polluter tax. Even the reward system in place for using your own coffee mug is pretty weak (more info to come).

And finally, social pressure. If you were to start barking like a dog in a crowded bus it wouldn’t be too long before you got some pretty nasty looks implying that you should stop. If you were to toss your aluminum can into a garbage bin even though a recycling bins was available, nobody would bat an eye. This is tragic considering the fact that social pressure is often the most effective means of getting others to participate in a common goal.

I am certain that I will be commenting further on these issues as time goes on but if there is anyone out there that wants to make recycling a reality ASAP… let’s talk.

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