A few years ago, a good friend of mine, who is also an expert in waste management, decided to carry the landfill-destined waste she produced with her for 30 days. When she came to visit me for a weekend during that month, she discreetly but consistently kept a gallon-size Ziploc bag with her at all times. Throughout the weekend, I watched her mull over what are often mindless decisions for the rest of us — grabbing a disposable utensil at a food truck or digging into an individually wrapped granola bar — all because of her bag. At one point, as we were finishing a meal at a restaurant, she refused the takeout container offered by the waiter, only to pull a collapsible bowl and lid from her purse to package her leftovers. Not only was the entire experience eye-opening for her, but it also challenged those around her, including me, to think about the choices we make every day.
While my friend’s efforts may sound extreme, she made an important point: If we are conscious about the amount of energy we consume and the waste we produce, we are likely to adjust our behavior to decrease it. Yet, many significant investments in “greening” new technology focus on energy efficiency, such as power generation or vehicle mileage standards, but leave out an integral part of the equation — us, the users. In the effort to minimize waste and combat climate change, leveraging automation, especially automated decision aids, in a way that understands human tendencies can better compel us toward limiting our individual and collective carbon footprints.
The Rebound Effect
Whether it’s the food we eat, the cars we drive, or the lightbulbs we install in our homes, many of us choose energy efficient options whenever we can. Yet, even when we have the best intentions, the widespread phenomenon known as the “rebound effect” can negate the progress we’re attempting to make.
The rebound effect — also referred to as the takeback effect — is when the gains that would otherwise be made from environmentally conscious decisions and products are offset, even if just partially, by the user’s behavior. The owner of a hybrid car may be less mindful of their energy consumption — how much fuel they use or the routes they take — because they believe they’re already acting efficiently by driving that vehicle. Similarly, a household may be less conscious of leaving the lights on because they are using energy-saving bulbs. The tendency behind the rebound effect is somewhat natural for humans — think about the time you ate a cookie right after taking a run — which is why understanding behavioral tendencies when designing new technology that informs people of their consumption is so vital.
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Deploying automotive systems that monitor and record our energy usage and waste production is one approach. Less than 10 miles from Purdue University, where I teach, an Indiana Subaru plant became the first manufacturing facility in the U.S. to reach zero-landfill status by either recycling all waste or turning it into electricity. By “meticulously tracking its waste,” according to one article, and “keep[ing] a running tab on the amount of waste coming from each assembly station,” the plant and its workers learned more about what they were doing to achieve this distinction. The data helped Subaru identify ways to cut waste and save millions of dollars.
Gamifying Our Consumption
On an individualized level, we have access to similar information, like smart-home devices that track a household’s electrical consumption for cutting down on excessive usage and costs. However, the sheer amount of data can be overwhelming for some. For others, it may also understandably feel like they’re being chastised for their consumption and decisions, rather than motivated to invest in the process of changing their behaviors in a way that will positively impact the environment.
Wearable technologies may hold the key. If you have a Fitbit FIT and Apple Watch, you’re likely familiar with the achievement medals you can earn and competitions you can participate in. If you reach a certain number of steps or active minutes, you get a reward, giving you a goal to strive for. The “gamification” of our health contextualizes what thousands of steps can mean to us and, as a result, motivates us for our benefit. It’s still the same information, only presented in a manner that incentivizes us to act on it.
This application of automated decision aids, which intelligently inform users on how to approach their choices, may be the next phase of “green” technology to help us address the climate crisis. A car that sets goals for a driver based off of their mileage and fuel usage, and comparing it to their past consumption, could steadily impact individual behavior. Likewise, a manufacturer that incentivizes workers to limit waste could have an even more significant impact. This technology puts the human at the center of the equation and can contribute to helping our planet.
Not all of us may be up for carrying around our garbage, but we are looking for ways to do our part — or do more — and just need the information and interfaces to know how.