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Wednesday, 08 August 2012 17:11

The Problem is not with Waste, but with Climate… -how Perceptions Influence Behavior

Written by  Dr. Ulrich Wiegel Martin Steiner
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Comparison of quantities – visible apples, unvisible oranges

About 250 kg of household and commercial garbage is generated per person per year. In addition, about the same amount of recyclable materials is separately collected, comprising: paper, glass, biowaste etc., altogether 500 kg of “waste” per person per year. The quantity of greenhouse gases (measured as CO2-equivalents, to which the various greenhouse gases are converted according to their relative impact) comes to about 10,000 kg of CO2-equivalents per person and year, or 10 tonnes, about 20 times the quantity of waste. If you were of the opinion that the waste problem has largely been resolved in Germany (and Austria, Switzerland…), you would be correct. Separate waste collection is almost a cultural given in these countries, it has been forbidden to landfill untreated waste in these countries for at least the past five years, the climate-damaging release of methane from landfills has therefore been dealt with. The utilization of waste through resource and energy recovery has been perfected over the last 20 to 30 years in such a way that the greenhouse gas balance of management of our waste is now positive: recycling of waste saves more emissions through substitution of raw materials than emissions released during its collection and treatment. That´s a considerable success story which is the envy of many countries outside Central Europe.

No action without suffering, or reward

Three factors have been the main drivers for this development: the negative impacts of improper waste treatment were quickly felt (e.g. groundwater pollution caused by dumpsites), and prompted action to be taken. Secondly, waste – through its sensory qualities – is present to some degree in everyone´s mind on a day-to-day basis – this increased the political priority to deal with it. Thirdly, the adoption of environmentally friendly waste treatment has enabled tangible environmental benefits to be quickly realised.

All these mechanisms do not apply to CO2-waste: damages occur only following considerable delay and are not locally connected to the source. This, together with the fact that CO2-waste cannot be perceived “sensorily”, has resulted in less intense countermeasures being taken.

Good behaviour is not rewarded promptly and locally, but only following considerable delay, and at a diffuse, global level.

No perception = no problem

In order to understand how our willingness to solve a problem is influenced by the capability to perceive the problem, the following example is given: You observe somebody throwing a noticeable piece of paper litter – say an empty cigarette packet – out their car window every two seconds. This continues for a minute, over one kilometre, resulting in 30 pieces of litter lying on the road, one piece every 33 m, altogether maybe 150 g of waste. Your indignation at this would likely be considerable. What if everybody behaved like this! At the same time, the car has left behind 150 g CO2 over the one kilometre “on the road” via its exhaust. Does this annoy to the same degree? Almost certainly not: CO2-waste cannot be seen, cannot be smelt, cannot be felt – so it does not exist in our perception. Apart from that everybody does it.

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