Making it Hard to do the Wrong Thing

Making it Hard to do the Wrong Thing

In June, Susan and I taught a Creative Writing Course on the campus of Macalester College. The campus is striving to be trash free by 2020. I know this because they promote the goal well around campus with signs. They don’t stop with words and awareness, but have also made significant structural decisions that are moving the campus toward success.

There was no trashcan in our classroom. There was no trashcan in the hallway, but there were recycling and compost bins. In the bathroom, the compost and recycling bins were significantly bigger than the trashcan. Sure, it was not that long of a walk down the hall to the nearest trashcan in the bathroom, but don’t you know that the slight inconvenience made me think twice about possessing something that needs to be put in the trash. They created an environment that made it ever so annoying to do the wrong thing. That slight rub forced us to think about our daily habits just long enough to make micro-changes for the better. When you second-guess every piece of trash long enough to find somewhere to dispose of it, eventually you make less trash.

I’m still thinking about how a small structural decision like putting out fewer trashcans had an effect on my individual and habitual actions. Macalester’s word and deed commitment to zero trash challenged me to think about systems and jurisdiction. I used to be more active in advocating for change not only on the personal level, but on the systemic level as well. Walking down the hallway to the tiny trash can at Macalester reminded me that working toward systemic change makes a big difference.

The system I can immediately address is my home. How am I making it easy or hard to produce trash at home? Where can I store my reusable grocery bags to make sure I use them every time? How can I make it more convenient instead of less convenient to choose bulk bin items? What structural things can I put in place to affect the daily actions of my family? And how are the other systems like my workplace and city doing?

There’s nothing quite like breaking the routine to help us reflect on the parts of our routine that have become automatic. Macalester, my very temporary workplace, helped me return to my daily life with intentionality and commitment to reducing waste.