British University Experiments With Online 'Shaming' of Non-Recyclers: Does It Work? Is It a Good Idea?


The right place for recycling. Photo: Dru Bloomfield / Creative Commons.

If all your friends and peers could see what you were chucking into the trash, would you recycle more? Early reports from a dormitory experiment at England's Newcastle University suggest online "shaming" can be successful in increasing recycling rates, at least temporarily, but critics say the idea is too "Big Brother"-style for their tastes.Four student households in the Newcastle residence halls have agreed to have sensor-triggered camera phones, or "BinCams," attached to the lids of their trash cans. The cameras take a picture each time the bin is closed and upload a photograph of its contents to Facebook, where fellow students can play trash monitor -- and take note of each others' junk-food-eating habits.

Recycling Rates Went Up Quickly
"If there is anything in [the trash] that could be recycled, they will lose points and slide down the league table of participants. Worse still, they could be shamed by their friends," the BBC reported, noting that after just two weeks, the amount of recyclable materials being trashed had dramatically dropped.

This online accountability is exactly what the researcher who devised the experiment had in mind. As project leader Anje Thieme told the British broadcaster:

"Normally, when you throw something away, the lid goes down and you forget about it. But by taking a photograph and uploading it to Facebook, it's a bit like having your conscience sat on your shoulder."

Critics say it's more like having a cop sift through your trash, warning against attempts to broaden use of the BinCam. "Encouraging recycling is fine but publically humiliating those who choose not to is outrageous," Daniel Hamilton of the group Big Brother Watch told the British newspaper the Daily Mail.

Positive Incentives Needed Too
Guardian environmental blogger Leo Hickman meanwhile objects to the focus on the "stick" rather than the "carrot," though he acknowledges that the researchers "have already noted many potential problems, particularly over privacy and impediments to behavioral change." He suggested the financial incentives that have brought recycling rates up to 70 percent in the German town of Neustadt an der Weinstrasse as a better model:

"It seems a far more sensible starting point than, in the words of the Daily Mail, Big Brother-style, draconian measures such as cameras in bins, even if they are presented as hip and cuddly through the window dressing of being synched with Facebook and Twitter."

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Tags: England | Recycling | Universities | Waste