To encourage recycling, new trash labels call on human psychology
Over the summer, Building Services replaced the “Trash” labels on the grey disposal bins scattered throughout Frist’s first, second and third floors with “Landfill” labels. This isn’t just an insignificant semantic swap, professors said, but rather a shift that reflects an understanding of the human decision-making process. By changing the label, environmental leaders believe, they can change recycling behavior.
The initiative was led by Director of Building Services Jon Baer, who first heard of the idea during a monthly meeting between the Office of Sustainability and student leaders of environmental clubs — including Eco-Reps and Greening Princeton — last spring.
During the meeting, attendees discussed a report that the University had failed to meet a goal it set four years ago to recycle 50 percent of its waste. The University only recycled 42 percent, so the committee decided to brainstorm ways for students to think more carefully about their consumption choices.
Olivia Howard ’15, a member of Green Leaders — formerly called the Princeton Environmental Network — suggested that the University relabel its trash bins. Baer implemented the idea over the summer.
“Our department’s responsibility is to provide infrastructure to place receptacles in the right place and help make every single student and staff member do the right thing with recycling,” Baer said.
Though she had come up with the idea, Howard did not participate in its implementation, and even she was surprised to see the new labels upon her return to campus.
“I was really happy,” Howard said. “I heard a few people say, ‘Have you noticed?’ I didn’t think they would take notice of the labels right away.”
Manager of the Office of Sustainability Shana Weber said using the label “landfill” would make it clear to people where their trash was going. This way, students would think twice before adding material to a landfill.
“We wanted to create or at least attempt to create a little bit of a more direct connection to the outcome of putting items into that bin versus the recycling bin,” Weber said.
This type of association is backed by psychological evidence, according to psychology professor Nicholas Turk-Browne.
“The ‘landfill’ word is a cue to try to get people to do something differently,” Turk-Browne explained. “You’re not changing the choices that people have, but you’re sort of directing them to make particular choices. You’re attracting attention to that word by way of its being novel — with respect to what you’d normally expect — and then, the actual words highlight the direct consequences of that action.”
Jon Sprouse, a colleague of Turk-Browne in the psychology department, said the word “landfill” has the potential to evoke images of environmental degradation in the human mind in a way the word “trash” doesn’t.
“When we retrieve the meaning of a word, we also retrieve the meaning of related words,” Sprouse said. “We understand the word through metaphors. Trash makes you think about the item you’re throwing away, whereas landfill makes you think about the destination.”
Building Services, the Office of Sustainability and Green Leaders will be gauging the results of this program and its potential effects on disposal over the next few months. Initially, they will receive feedback from janitorial staff since the University does not have the ability to weigh waste from a single building.
Baer said expanding the new labeling system into dormitories — where he said past student surveys show that careless waste disposal is most prevalent — is the program’s next logical step. Meanwhile, Weber and Howard said they hope students will give feedback on the new system so the program can expand.