In 2009, a group of scientists launched a project to determine if it is possible to change the behaviour of people with regard to how they dispose of their rubbish. The project seeks to determine if behaviour can be modified by making the act of disposing rubbish more fun.

throwing your drink cup, sweet wrapper, or old newspaper into the rubbish bin is certainly not the kind of activity many would associate with fun. There are all kinds of parties in society; candle parties, drinking parties, Tupperware parties, but as yet there are no known rubbish disposing parties. If they do exist they have been driven underground!

Even if it were possible to manipulate human behaviour into recycling more and throwing away less how would it be executed?

If we were the rubbish scientists in charge of this project our first guess would be that one could make throwing rubbish away fun by:

  • Making it into a sports challenge
  • Offering a prize
  • Paying cash rewards
  • Creating bins that are more attractive and “fun” by design
  • Designing bins that react or respond to human actions

We brainstormed ideas prior to having looked at the project parameters to avoid any bias. It will be interesting to see if the scientists and us are on the same page.

Part of the project was an open invitation for suggestions as to how to change the behaviour in question. A cash reward of €2500 was offered as the top prize.

One idea was to create a motion detection device that would be seated within the rubbish bin and would respond by emitting the whistling sound of a dropping bomb and its subsequent explosion. Creative, yes, however maybe not such a good idea for public bins given the current paranoia with regard to terrorism. We would go as far as to say that would be in quite poor taste.

Such a device was created and deployed in a rubbish bin on a city pavement. Video recordings were made of people tossing rubbish and responding to the sound effects. Most seemed to find it amusing. Allegedly 41 kg more rubbish was disposed of in the target bin than in a similar bin that had no sound effects and that was situated just a short distance away.

The video recordings indicated that some people, particularly children, hunted about the area picking up bits of trash and rubbish ostensibly to place into the bin to receive the response. In that way, the sound effects did result in the desired behaviour.

It must be noted that the changes here are very narrow in scope. There’s nothing in the experiment to suggest that any person who would normally dispose of rubbish on the ground would by default dispose of their rubbish in a bin that returned a sound effect for the edification.

It could be stated that those who picked up additional litter from the ground, apparently in a bid to receive an audible thank you by way of sound effects, were in fact positively affected and their behaviour changed.

However, nothing in the experiment rules out that these particular subjects would not have normally picked up litter they saw lying on the ground in the absence of the sound effect.

Although it sounds impressive that the target bin had a whopping 41 kg more than the nearby bin without sound effects, what would’ve happened had there been no additional rubbish to dispose of?

Even if they had designed bins that look like basketball goals or awarded cash prizes for every piece of rubbish thrown in it would still be impossible to prove a correlation with regard to disposal behaviour.

While the experiment was certainly admirable it was not conducted in a scientifically sound environment nor were scientific methods tightly adhered to.

In a similar experiment the same sound effect device was deployed in public restrooms. In this case the whistling sound of bombs falling and a subsequent explosion did not result in a significant uptick in the use of the facility

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