Donation Deposit: identifying motivational levers for better recycling practices

The Donation Deposit project, winner of the Civic Incubator’s fall 2020 cohort, tackles the complex issue of waste recycling in high-rise housing. By proposing to target the levers of behavioural change, Bianca Paquette and Louis-Georges Bernard hope to make such buildings exemplary models in waste management.

Initiating change

Construction of new high-rise buildings, along with strong demographic growth, has transformed the Griffintown neighbourhood in Montreal’s southwest. This sudden densification and its accompanying concentration of waste has revealed a lack of viable solutions for efficient collection. Though these new buildings can contain between one hundred and many hundreds of apartments, they use the same model as smaller structures in handling their waste: a garbage chute on each floor, plus green recycling bins, and sometimes a few brown bins for organic matter, in a cramped basement space. The number of bins is supposed to correspond to the number of dwellings, but here efforts at optimization stop. These spaces are not redesigned to take the scale of the buildings into account, and the municipalities have exhausted existing technological solutions.

Improving waste-management practices in densified housing (defined as nine units or more) is a complex challenge requiring a behavioural-change phase before new solutions can be deployed. The dynamics of recycling in such housing differ markedly from those in a single-family home or duplex, and must be reconceived, taking into account the characteristics of living environments in which resident owners and short- or long-term tenants live side by side. From the outset, renters and owners do not receive the same level of information. They do not necessarily have the same ecological sensitivity, nor do they share an understanding of good practices or the impact of compliance or non-compliance with the co-ownership regulations in the common areas.

Consigne Don : identifier les leviers de motivation à de meilleures pratiques de recyclage

“We can’t expect everyone to understand and abide by the rules of recycling management to the letter. Especially when the easy way is to dispose of residual materials, recyclable or not, in the same bin, out of sight in the recycling room in the basement, where no one is held responsible or penalized for not sorting. To date, Louis-Georges and I can see that the result is catastrophic in the high-rise building where we live. The lack of involvement in waste sorting has reached the point of discouraging the most eco-responsible residents.” — Bianca

“In observing the mountains of material that accumulates in the green bins, we noticed a significant number of returnable containers that people haven’t bothered to sort. Yet the deposit system has been in place in Quebec since the 1980s, and has been widely adopted, but it seems that a financial incentive doesn’t sufficiently motivate people to make the effort to return cans and bottles to collection points.” — Louis-Georges

“Since infrastructure is expensive and awareness-raising campaigns have limited impact, we thought instead about a solution based on the behavioural approach. What could we do to change people’s behaviour and make them want to participate in the deposit system again? We had the idea of linking it to a virtuous cause so that the donations collected by the deposit would be given to community organizations chosen by the residents.” — Bianca

But was this the right approach? Where was the best place to begin to adopt collective eco-responsible practices? Bianca saw the call for projects from the Civic Incubator while the project was at the pre-incubation stage. “We didn’t know much about recycling,” she says. “It’s not our field; we didn’t have any contacts in that world, either. On the other hand, we wanted to see our idea through to the end and do everything we could to change an incoherent way of working that we see every day. The Civic Incubator programme spoke to us in its open approach to citizen projects led by ‘non-experts’ in social innovation. Joining the next cohort seemed like the ideal opportunity to get started.”

Studying behavioural approaches

Even before attempting to influence motivation, Bianca and Louis-Georges identified several issues that seemed to explain the level of involvement in sorting:

  • densified buildings are not designed for large-scale waste management
  • the rooms used for recycling lack clear signage
  • good practices are not effectively passed on to newly settled residents

Clearly, communication was a central point in identifying obstacles to behavioural change. As for motivational levers, experimental work has made it possible to better define them as a function of the sociodemographic and psychographic profiles of residents: Would contributions made to a charitable cause incentivize the collection of recyclable containers if the monetary value of these containers didn’t?

Thanks to different workshops in the Civic Incubator programme, deposit awareness was subsequently validated as a “nudge process”—i.e., through a behavioural-science framework, users were led intuitively to take the right actions within the framework of a waste-management experience. The objective was to position the deposit as a starting point in the transition to better recycling practices, as well as a Trojan horse for introducing sustainable sorting behaviours for residual materials. By adopting appropriate behaviours now—beginning with cans and bottles, and then, using the same approach, with other containers—we can maximize the impact of the planned expansion of the deposit system in Quebec. Donation Deposit is thus anchored in a vision of residual-materials management in which the extended deposit aims to bring selective sorting directly to households (compost on one side, glass on the other, with the contents of plastic, metal, and paper/cardboard bins to be separated at the sorting centre), without generating additional costs.

In order to implement their solution, Bianca and Louis-Georges identified and collaborated with stakeholders—while reconciling the concerns and strategies of each of them. “We discovered a complex ecosystem into which the project must fit in order to maintain mobilization and encourage environmentally responsible behaviour. At the same time, we realized that by creating our own organization to manage the whole recycling chain, we would be competing with other organizations like les Valoristes, which supports vulnerable people for whom the deposit is a source of income! So we approached the Valoristes to initiate a partnership that has proved invaluable in setting up Donation Deposit’s operations and container logistics.” —Bianca

The apartment building of the project leaders will serve as a laboratory for the first phase, in which clear signage and some basic facilities will be put in place in the waste room prior to the initiation of nudges oriented towards the deposit. This study of behavioural sustainability will determine whether or not the processes can be extended not only to other buildings, but also to other residual materials requiring treatment in the waste-management system.

“We are in the initial phase of Donation Deposit, moving forward step by step. But if I take a long-term view, I dream of our programme being an arena of experimentation and study for one of the many academic projects that are looking into the impact of nudging on environmentally responsible behaviour. I also dream of our work influencing the regulations and building standards in residential complexes. To be continued!” — Louis-Georges

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