The psychology of waste

I have been getting ready to analyze data for some social research. Although it sounds boring, entering the data is actually an opportunity to see an overview of the responses to questions. And comments sometimes strike me as amazing.

One example is the large number of people who report making no changes to their lifestyle in order to live more sustainably. Many report driving a few miles in order to go for a walk in the woods where they were surveyed. And those who have made changes are small – recycling or turning off lights when they don’t need them. Unfortunately, it is unlikely that these changes will be sufficient to allow us to keep living in a habitable world.

Why is that even those who understand the problems of a degree or three of average temperature change, have generally not made radical changes? The root cause lies in human minds: our lack of desire to be courageous and commit to far-reaching and uncomfortable changes. We like our comfort, and we are reluctant to give up any of those hard-won luxuries such as ample winter heating and having new T-shirts that don’t look worn. We love newness, with the excitement of children unwrapping presents. We buy the new shower gels with small plastic grains that smooth our skin and form a broth of tiny permanent plastic pieces in the sea. We throw out worn clothes -and even new ones with the wrong colour or cut. Someone showing up at work or meetings with a darned cardigan or a jacket with patches where the elbows got worn, would seem extreme and strange. So, to patch ones clothes requires courage or an acceptance of isolation from mainstream society.

And the average person is caught in their personal calculation: a new T-shirt, with labour, transport, raw material, costs less than a sandwich in a coffee shop, and a jacket less than dinner for two.

There is a pleasure in buying new, and in getting rid of something, as well as the well-known pleasure in purchasing something new (or new to oneself – as second-hand clothes can bring the same pleasure). And that the fundamental change towards less waste that is urgently needed will not take place until we address the psychological pleasure in getting rid of waste. And the psychological pleasure of unwrapping the new purchase, the Christmas feeling after shopping.

I am currently in the US, where social service mostly takes the form of small, individual alleviations of the pain of poverty. And I am minded of a story of a daycare centre which instigated fines for parents coming late to pick up their children. The fines were expected, in classical economics, to increase the cost and the discourage lateness. What the daycare centre was surprised to discover was that it increased the late pickups. Parents felt they had paid for an additional service and simply made use of the new right to be late. This is the interaction of social psychology with finances. I wonder if the small project approach to social inequality in the US works in a similar way to create a feeling that one has paid for the nagging sense that the society is not just, and somehow hardens the status quo instead of changing it.

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