Kermit has a point.

In a recent class, we discussed frictional forces in decision making. I like this idea, and have since applied the thinking to many scenarios. After reading the “Reduce” chapter in Carbon Efficient City, I realized perhaps the greatest frictional force in decision making: the status quo. 

From my days in elementary school in the early 90s, I fondly remember two national slogans. I remember Nancy Reagan’s “Just Say No” to drugs campaign, which in reality is an extremely difficult demand of vulnerable, peer-pressured children. If adults can’t say no, how are kids expected to say it with any conviction? Regardless, it must have worked well enough for most of us. 

I also remember the three R’s. No, not “Reading, ‘Riting, and ‘Rithmetic. I remember the other three R’s: “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle.” Not a bad proselytization for a small Midwestern town

(Digression: The Midwest is not the West Coast. For example, my Midwestern mom came to visit this past weekend, and I was a bit red-faced when I had to unpack her paper grocery bag at the checkout line and stuff the goods into the reusable bag I had brought in. Reusable bags just aren’t the status quo in her life.) 

So how did Reduce, Reuse, Recycle work for me? Well, recycling in Seattle is made rather easy thanks to legal pressure, though it doesn’t help me understand what I can recycle and what I can’t (this does). I remember joking with a past roommate of mine, “This is great! Look at all the recycling we have!” But recycling in a sense is still wasted stuff, especially if you get it wrong. Those other two R’s are in there for a reason after all. I consider myself fairly verdurous on the scale of environmentally-friendly, but still it took years for me to realize that I can reuse things like aluminum foil. Thank goodness I had a different past roommate who showed me I could wash and reuse Ziploc bags! 

I see two reasons for my difficulties: One, I was born in a house where we recycled, but we didn’t consciously reduce and we never reused. This programming was out of my control, because as far as I know a “conservation” gene does not exist. 

The second reason is far more interesting to me: The decision-making frictional forces in the three R’s are high. That is, tossing everything into the trash is a much easier decision than thinking about what is recyclable and where it’s recyclable and storing additional bins throughout the house and remembering to take wine corks to Whole Foods and compact fluorescent lamps to Ace Hardware. 

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Reducing the packaging of cereals.
Credit: http://www.sunpack.com/

Similarly, “reducing” to a significant extent is out of my immediate control. When I go to the store, I can’t choose the amount of packaging my products come in. There does seem to be a trend toward reduced packaging (e.g., cereal), but come on, Frito-Lay knows the subliminal power a big bag of Doritos has, even if the bag is most filled with air

(Digression: My elementary school experimented with milk bags. As thoroughly immature pre-teens, we thought the idea was ridiculous that was made even more ridiculous by the automatic detention policy for anyone who spilled milk from the bags. Though it was tempting to squeeze those bags to see how far pressurized milk travels through a cafeteria, we all feared accidental discharge as I’m sure anyone who has tried to poke a straw into one of those bags would understand. For whatever reason, the concept didn’t upset the status quo of paper milk cartons.) 

Lastly, reusing is much more time-consuming and hassle-prone than the alternative. Washing Ziploc bags is extremely tedious, and if not for my near begging, my wife probably wouldn’t put up with it (this adds even more friction, because now I am under time pressure to wash the bags and get them off the kitchen counter). 

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A lot of energy is required to change the status quo.
Credit: http://www.sciencehq.com/

Why is friction so high here? Well, status quo has a great deal of inertia, and by Physics 101 redirecting inertia takes a huge amount of energy (if not, James Cameron’s Titanic may just have been a insipid movie about a big boat that uneventfully sails across The Pond for a spot of tea). This includes both individual and industrial status quo. I can’t possibly expect Frito-Lay to instantly re-engineer its entire production process to use less packaging (I still wouldn’t buy Doritos anyway).

 We need to address the frictional forces in the three R’s. How about incentivizing companies to use less or more earth friendly packaging? How about designing products for reuse rather than feeding our fixation on disposable goods? What if we clearly indicate “This Item is Recyclable” or “Please Compost this Item” or “You Will be Rewarded in Your Next Life if You Reuse This Item” on the things we buy? At the least, we would lower the frictional force in the decision to follow the three R’s and could begin to right the ship.

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