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Neighbor Comparisons

According to a study from the Environmental Defense Fund and energy-management software company OPower, Americans who get better power meter data (from both regular and smart meters) cut energy consumption by an average of 1.8% in the first year. The main reason is that they see how much power their neighbors are using. I think we should do this with recycling. If we mail or email monthly reports that compare how much recycling a specific household does with their neighbors, I think we will see some positive and permanent results.

Photo of Ben Pepin
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Explain your idea in one sentence

Show people how much their neighbors recycle and display easy ways for them to improve their own habits.
Every month or two, households recieve a report in their mail of how much recycling they have been doing compared to that of their peers.  It will be a simple and easy to read graph (like the picture above) with methods on how to improve their own recycling habits.   

This idea could succeed because there are studies that prove it works with power.  The study showed that the change was both substantial and long term.

Example scenario: 

Jackie lives with her husband and two kids in an old victorian home in San Francisco.  She has three bins: a garbage bin, a recycling bin and a compost bin, which she drags out onto the sidewalk every Wednesday night.  When she looks at her bins, she finds the garbage overflowing with trash, the recycling bin about half full and the compost bin nearly empty.  As she struggles to make the black garbage bin contain all of her family's trash, she looks around and notices that her next door neighbors have done a much better job distributing their waste.  She goes over and checks their bins and in fact, there is more waste in the recycling bin, then there is in the trash.  Jackie knows that her neighbor is of similar economic status and comes from the same size household, but it seems as if she has done a better job recycling.  Jackie considers herself a knowledgable person when it comes to recycling.  She understands that plastic bottles and aluminum cans go into the blue bin and it doesn't cross her mind that her neighbor might know more than her.  She chalks up the difference to the idea that maybe her neighbors ate out more that week.   

The next day, she checks her mail and gets a letter that says, on average, her neighbors recycle 30 percent more than her.  She has no idea how this is possible, but then she reads more of the letter and realizes how many easy, but effective things she can do to help her percentage.  She starts to bring her own bags with her to the grocery store.  She puts a "NO JUNK MAIL" sticker on her mail box.  And she actively shops for products that come in recyclable containers.  Within a few weeks, her garbage pile is halved.  Within the year, she has replaced her once overflowing black bin with a smaller one.  It is less heavy then it used to be.  

Describe how your idea would help form new habits and improve recycling at home

The smart meter study proved that people react to data and they don't like being outdone by their neighbors. If we show them that they aren't as efficient as the rest of the block, they will want to act. The next step is just showing them how. The monthly statement would help form new habits because it will display simple and easy ways to do so. The power study also showed that these tactics kept sustained levels of reduced power consumption. An important key to this challenge is creating methods that encourage permanent change.

How might you design an early, lightweight experiment to further develop your idea?

Find a neighborhood that is already aware of their recycling habits and would willingly engage in small sample test. In the power test that surveyed 75,000 homes, only 2 percent of home opted out. If we could find an environmentally conscious neighborhood, I think most homes will be willing to partake in the experiment.

What aspects of your idea could benefit from the input of our OpenIDEO community?

I think the big challenge here is how to track the amount of recycling of each household. Please share your thoughts! This idea is meant to be simple and nonintrusive so the less effort required by the household, the better. Another issue is what to suggest to households who are already doing a good job recycling. What else can we say besides, "Keep up the good work!"


Join the conversation:

Photo of Martin Lui

The only obstacle I can find with this is the family size of houses dilemma where in larger families will definitely encourage more recycling because they are consuming a lot more.

Or maybe we're viewing this all from the wrong standpoint that things need to be recycled? Not to bash at the idea of recycling, but reusable items would reduce the amount of recycling. The ideas that we not only think about recycling, but the way we use recycling as a tool is vague and restricted.

I'm in no way saying it is not going to work, or that it's effective. Your idea is neat and simple, and to stem off of it the idea that reusing grows the concern for how much can be recycled.

You can also be a hoarder of recyclables and disorient the amount of recycling done.

Photo of Ben Pepin

Thanks for the comment!

One of the big issues the power study faced and tried to address was comparing households of the same size and socioeconomic status. I think that we should try to follow that model, but we should also try to create a percentage system that helps compare everyone on a level playing field.

One idea is to also track trash output and then compare trash vs. recycling output.

As for your other suggestion, I think it poises an interesting question:
How do you track, quantify and celebrate reuse which is just as valuable as recycling.

I think a good solution could be encouraging usage of reusable items on the monthly statement. Also, if we track trash output, the monthly statement could show that a household is using less trash without recycling more, but still making their percentage better.

Thanks again for the comment. I will update the idea page with your suggestions in the near future.

Photo of Meena Kadri

Great conversation, guys. I also wonder whether there might be some merit in comparing neighbourhoods / streets rather (or as well) as households – to get a bit of friendly community rivalry going on?

Ben – we'd also love it if you might consider helping people better grasp how this idea could play out by describing some example scenarios which illustrate user journeys through some of the proposed activities you've outlined. Check this example: where a few simple scenarios were created in an attempt to explain the goodness on the idea in a human-centered way. (You can update your post at any time by hitting the Update Entry button up there on the right.)

Any thoughts on how a lightweight prototype might work without requiring advanced technology? ie. How might you test this in your own neighbourhood to test assumptions? (eg. could you test a few apartments in a block via their recycling bins and put the results on a blackboard? Could you rate floors against each other so that individual households don't get so embarrassed? :^) Here's more tips on prototyping: As always – we're excited that someone in the OpenIDEO community might give some aspect of this idea a go!

Photo of Meena Kadri

Also thought you might this initiative inspiring as you evolve your idea:

Photo of Ben Pepin

Thanks for the extremely helpful feedback Meena! I think there definitely would be some merit to comparing neighborhoods and streets. Maybe even directly telling households how their improved habits would positively impact their neighborhood's numbers.

I love your ideas for prototyping and am working on coming up with something using the links you posted as inspiration. It's definitely helpful having some guidance from someone with as much knowledge on this site as you. I'm excited to see what this idea becomes!


Photo of Shane Zhao

Great idea Ben. Your idea definitely references the use of social pressure to incentivize neighbors within the same community from this research post:

You would be interested to look into the Walk Score system that ranks neighborhoods and even cities relative to each other on a national scale. The rating system has become an indication for how "liveable" a place is based on accessibility to the number of local amenities, public transportation options, and general walk ability. This rating system has been used by property owners to raise their real estate value. If a neighborhood has a high Walk Score, the properties in the area would generally be rented out or sold for a higher price. I wonder how your idea can make recycling a part of how people perceive their communities. If higher recycling rates can raise the value of their neighborhoods like Walk Score, perhaps neighbors would be incentivized to work together on their recycling efforts: