There’s no such thing as a one-size-fits-all nudge

grabage truck

Seattle City Council is considering a program to the frequency of garbage pickups from weekly service to bi-weekly service. The service reductions would be accompanied by a restructuring of utility rates designed to incentivize homeowners to reduce the waste they put into their trash cans. Customers who upgrade the size of their trash-cans would be faced with a rate increase for the same level of service which they were accustomed to before. Those who produce less trash do not upgrade their trashcan size will likely see a slight decrease in their bill. Meanwhile, customers are not charged for the size of their recycling or composting containers, meaning that homeowners will have a monetary incentive to put more of their waste in those containers.

The basic idea is simple, people will be more motivated to recycle and compost if it saves them money. And for many Seattle homeowners, the proposed One Less Truck program would do that. The problem is that, according to a report on the city pilot project completed last year, the program is not as effective in low income and minority households. While the pilot program showed that a majority of participants were satisfied with the service cuts, there was a significant difference in satisfaction along income and racial lines. Households earning less than $60,000 per year were more likely to be dissatisfied with the program, as were non-white and non-Asian families.

One unsurprising trend in the pilot project was that larger families, especially those with children still in diapers, were less able to reduce their waste and more likely to need to upgrade their bin size. Another trend was that lower income neighborhoods were more likely to see greater contamination in their recycling bins, trash in the street, or trash illegally deposited into a neighbor’s bin. In other words, low-income people were more likely to put their trash in the wrong bin in order to avoid paying the higher upgrade fee. This is a big problem for the program’s environmental goals if it means that more waste is turned away from recycling centers due to bin contamination. The program also leads to greater inequity because bill increases will pose the greatest financial hardship to large low-income families with young children; exactly the type of family which was most likely to need to pay more in order to maintain the same level of service according to the pilot project.

But there’s a bigger reason why this program’s environmental incentives fail for many Seattle communities. This program offers a nudge towards recycling and composting for homeowners and people who pay utility bills directly to the city, but does nothing for anyone who rents and pays utilities to their landlord. For an apartment dweller who shares their dumpster with everyone else in their community, reducing their consumption or waste will have absolutely no impact on their utility bill. If their bill is bundled into their rent, their only awareness that this program exists will probably be the observation that their dumpster is now overflowing more often, or that a new dumpster has been installed and that their rent has gone up. For many renters, this program would represent a rate increase or a service reduction, but certainly not a nudge towards recycling and composting.

A good advocate for sustainability should consider the counter arguments to their favored policy choice, and be especially wary of how a one-size-fits-all solution seeking to change peoples’ behavior might fail to work in certain situations. One Less Truck may turn out to be a net winner for the environment or for the average utility customer’s bill, but failing to consider or learn from the problems identified in the pilot program will not do anyone any good. Ignoring the instances where the program failed and advising poor families with young children to “just roll up their diapers tighter” is no better a solution than the infamous “let them eat cake” response to famine.  The city has been carefully considering this proposal for over a year, including the aforementioned pilot project and hosting over a dozen public meetings to ask ratepayers their opinions about this, and other, proposals.  No matter what the city decides, it will be the result of transparent consideration, not an attempt to “cut the program off at the knees.” City residents and the environment will both benefit if the program can be adapted to fit the needs of different communities and customers in order to provide services and incentives which work for everyone.

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