Unpopular policy and public rationality

The BBC
reports
that the Japanese
town of Kamikatsu
has become the first ‘zero waste’ town. Residents
compost all of their food waste, and must sort the rest of their rubbish into
34 different categories—all of which they must take to public waste centres,
since there are no rubbish collections from people’s homes. It seems that the inhabitants of the town are
generally enthusiastic about the scheme, which offers small financial rewards
for recycling, and has encouraged people to make an effort to reduce the
rubbish they produce.

This is one
of those relatively rare, uplifting stories about a scheme designed to reduce
environmental damage that is not only successful, but supported by the
community. Could something similar work
in the UK? Recently, many UK councils reduced domestic refuse
collections from once-weekly to once-fortnightly, with recyclable waste being
collected in the intervening weeks. Whilst this has boosted the amount of rubbish being recycled,
some news reports
reveal that the new measures are unpopular, and some councils have bowed to
public pressure by re-introducing weekly collections. Given the environmental impact of adding to
landfill waste sites, ought the government to placate the public by relaxing
measures designed to reduce waste, or should unpopular measures be enforced
regardless of public opinion?

In
answering this question, it is interesting to consider that the public may sometimes support damaging measures simply because those measures have been in place for
many years, frequently far longer than we have been aware of the problems
arising from them. As Dostoyevsky’s
Raskalnikov is often quoted as saying, ‘man, the beast, gets used to
everything’. A problem arising from a
long-accepted practice can, as a result, sometimes seem more pressing when it
is redescribed in terms that play down its social context. Imagine, then, that the practice of disposing
of rubbish by organising council-funded domestic collections and transporting
the waste to landfill sites had never been introduced, and that the
government today announces plans to begin to dispose of rubbish in this way. I suggest that the public would be highly
disapproving of such a practice. Questions we might expect to see discussed in the media would include:
Living in such a small, densely-populated country, how can we endorse such a system as anything other than a short-term
measure?  How can we justify setting aside land for waste storage when there are so many more valuable ways to use space? What about those people who make
special efforts to minimise their waste, and to recycle or compost as much as
possible: why should they contribute to funding rubbish collections for those
who are unwilling to do the same? If we
must tolerate landfill, even as a short-term measure, surely manufacturers
should be forced to reduce packaging and use only recyclable materials, with
steep financial penalties incurred for using non-recyclables?

There is a
raft of psychological literature on cognitive bias and related patterns of
thought, which attempts to explain why people’s reactions to the same scenario varies with the
way in which the scenario is described, and with other seemingly irrelevant
factors. The factors at work in opposing reduced refuse collections plausibly include an irrational
preference for the status quo (Nick Bostrom and Toby Ord have written a very
interesting paper
on how to reduce status quo bias),
a resistance to having one’s behaviour manipulated by authority, and a
disproportionate focus on losses over gains induced by the way in which the
changes to the weekly rubbish collections have been described (consider that most reports
refer to them as reductions in
rubbish collections rather than as increases
in recyclables collections, thus giving the public the impression that they are losing out). It would no
doubt be possible—at least to an extent—for the government to manipulate public
opinion by making deceptive use of known cognitive biases, and we would have
good reason to object to such behaviour.
The way in which councils have dealt with their refuse woes seems to be too far towards the other extreme, however. Councils attempt to curry
favour for the new scheme simply by doing their best to emphasise the
importance of reducing landfill rubbish. A small amount of psychology can go a long way, however, and it may be
possible to gain favour for well-meaning but controversial policies by fighting
fire with fire—or, in this case, cognitive bias with cognitive bias. Financial incentives, promoting information
about how much of one’s council tax goes towards catering to one’s
recycling-unfriendly neighbours, and committing to increase funding for popular
public services if certain waste-reduction targets are met could all help
increase public support merely be emphasising aspects of the scheme that already exist. In any case, it seems prudent in situations where serious and pressing problems are met with public apathy or
hostility to stop focusing on emphasising the seriousness of
the problem, and to start changing the way in which one does one’s emphasising.

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