“Create No Garbage” and Other Flawed Heuristics

Awhile back Buzzfeed video made this video about trying to make no trash for a month. The young woman who made the video tried to eliminate her garbage creation for a whole month. She apparently did this mainly by choosing foods that don’t include packaging (bulk foods, produce, etc) and by composting food waste. She also talks to experts on waste about the quantities people create.

I’m torn about this kind of stunt. Decreasing trash is in a general sense a good idea because a lot of packaging materials are excessive and therefore require excessive resources to create, and moving trash around uses resources. But landfills are less of a problem than people think, and trying to solve environmental problems on an individual (rather than systemic) level can result in making decisions that may actually increase environmental impact. In particular, when we respond to environmental issues on an individual level by applying some simple heuristic, such as “create no trash,” we may instead create other problems.

There many heuristics people use to make environmental decisions. Many people eat organic food, despite complicated issues around the environmental impacts of organic farming. Others choose to focus on eating only food from their local area, which is also complicated. In general living in cities is a good choice, but growing urban areas need to be built in environmentally friendly ways to avoid unnecessary harm from urbanization.

Within environmental science communities there are a variety of ways we look at the environmental impact of human activities. Scientists and organizations can do life cycle assessments to examine the actual impacts of products and services. This process allows people the inputs and outputs of product or service and compare alternatives to each other to figure out what the differences will be between different choices. While doing a full life cycle assessment for every day consumer purchases is impractical, it can be a useful tool. It can be used by companies when deciding between purchasing two different products on a large scale, or for organizations to decide between processes. It can also help consumers when life cycle information is available, such as when someone examined purchasing books in stores vs online.

I would love to see more life cycle information available to consumers. Instead of labeling our food with heuristic information, such as “organic” or “non-GMO,” we could choose to use a formalized life cycle method to indicate the greenhouse gas emissions associated with a product, or the environmental toxicity level. I would love to see more accurate information provided to consumers so that we can make more environmentally friendly decisions.

However, ultimately the responsibility for environmental impact needs to be seen on a more society wide level. Since heuristic decision making is so deeply flawed, the options that become available to consumers are decided on a bigger corporate, government, and systemic level, better decision making needs to be made on those larger levels. Rather than individual consumers trying to create no garbage for a month, companies can and should work harder to minimize the impacts of the products they sell. Often that will include creating less packaging, which will create far less waste on a large scale and do a lot more good.

“Create No Garbage” and Other Flawed Heuristics

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