CEO & Founder of Final.
You know that warm fuzzy feeling you get when you put an item into the recycling bin? That is the feeling of moral redemption.
From the time we are young, at least in my experience, our parents, teachers and even our culture tell us that if we care about the Earth, we should recycle. Many of us might think that our trash gets transformed into fresh new items when we throw it in a recycling bin, and that by recycling, our plastic bottles will live forever. It’s a comforting narrative. But I believe it’s also a lie.
As humans, we tend to think that good behavior offsets bad behavior. This is called the “moral licensing effect.” It’s the subconscious phenomenon by which positive behaviors or choices create a greater allowance for actions that we would otherwise consider bad or unethical. Put simply, moral licensing is like drinking a diet soda while eating a cheeseburger; it’s how we allow ourselves to engage in questionable behavior after engaging in what we believe to be constructive behavior. The idea, here, is that if you intend to recycle a plastic bottle, you don’t necessarily feel as bad about grabbing one out of that gas-station cooler in the first place.
Monic Sun and Remi Trudel confirmed the existence of moral licensing in a clever experiment. Participants were divided into two groups and instructed to wrap gifts. One group was placed in a room with only a trash can, while the other group was placed in a room with a trash can and a recycling bin. The researchers found that the participants in the room with the waste and recycling bin used significantly more wrapping paper than those who did not. The simple suggestion of recycling was enough to result in the creation of more waste.
Are humans just gluttonous heathens predisposed to create waste? No. From my perspective, all of Earth’s creatures are programmed to conserve resources, and, despite what it might seem, there is significant research that indicates that humans are, in fact, averse to creating waste. Be it time, energy or money, our culture dictates that wasting resources is harmful.
So, what are the viable solutions to shifting how we think about recycling and creating waste? As the founder and CEO of a company that’s aiming to reduce the use of single-use plastic, I have a few suggestions:
1. Rethink. As a society, I believe we need to rethink how we value materials. When you throw something in the trash, you might inherently assign it a value of zero. But these materials actually have great worth and, if collected correctly, can contribute to society in a meaningful way.
For example, when Oregon increased its bottle deposit system’s collection value from 5 cents to 10 cents, as well as expanded the types of bottles the program accepted, there was a dramatic jump in bottle redemption rates. And in 2018, 90% of the bottles covered under the program were recycled.
Creating awareness is the first step when it comes to rethinking. In business, leaders can encourage their employees to rethink by communicating the company’s sustainable values and initiatives. This can be as simple as sharing a weekly sustainability tip, such as replacing single-use coffee pods with reusable pods or eliminating single-use utensils from the office kitchen. Showing employees how sustainability is a part of the company’s mission will encourage them to buy in on it. Follow-through is everything.
2. Redesign. The second step is to redesign systems to be circular. Extended producer responsibility is a policy approach that puts the responsibility — both financial and physical — on the producer to manage the treatment or disposal of a product after consumer use. In other words, anyone who sells a product should be responsible for that product when it becomes waste. From my perspective, making producers financially responsible for the waste they create provides a larger incentive to work toward source reduction.
In a business environment, this step means providing your employees with the tools they need to reduce their waste. People use what’s in front of them; therefore, it’s the company’s responsibility to provide its employees with sustainable alternatives. Offer beverages in aluminum cans instead of plastic bottles. Purchase company snacks in bulk instead of individually packaged snacks. Equip the office kitchen with reusable plates, cups and cutlery. Install hand dryers in the bathrooms. These small changes add up.
3. Reimagine. Creating a company is about reimagining the future, and it’s essential that all businesses consider their impact on the environment. What if every item ever purchased came with a lifetime guarantee? If a product ever breaks, it will get fixed or taken back by the company that made it. What if instead of planned obsolescence to increase consumerism, products were designed to last?
It’s critical that as a business leader you design products to last longer and be repaired. Regardless of your political, spiritual or social beliefs, Earth is the one and only planet we have, and I think it’s time businesses and individuals treat it that way.
As consumers, we can advocate for policies that hold companies accountable for the waste they create, and we can hold ourselves accountable by supporting companies that are doing amazing things in the world.
To me, waste is just a design flaw, and we need to look at recycling differently to avoid creating additional waste. It is time to focus on upstream waste minimization solutions. Instead of just attempting to go back to the days of the milkman, we need to update these models and innovate solutions that will work for our current society and for the future. We cannot continue to simply reduce, reuse and recycle. We must rethink, redesign and reimagine.