Sam Judd

Comment on the environment from nzherald.co.nz columnist Sam Judd

Sam Judd: What do I get in return?

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Reverse vending machines for public transport credit. Photo / Wikimedia Commons, Romy2702, Tomra Systems
Reverse vending machines for public transport credit. Photo / Wikimedia Commons, Romy2702, Tomra Systems

One of the biggest challenges in getting people to behave better towards the environment is how to create affordable incentives.

I have long believed that, with regards to littering and water pollution, although clever educational programs will achieve remarkable results, that some people refuse to change unless they are slapped with a fine. But this is negative incentivisation that is based on fear of being caught.

We know that if there is some kind of reward- it will be easier to achieve good behaviour in people. If you have more to offer than just the idea that you are helping the world more people will change, but it can be hard to pay for.

There are ways that people can be rewarded socially for good behaviour, such as the One Percent Collective who provide exclusive music performances to people who donate to charities.

We have also explored the potential for the online "gamification" of good behaviour, whereby if someone puts their hand up to do something good for the community that they earn recognition amongst their peers - harnessing that strange urge people have of wanting others to see what they have been up to online through platforms such as Facebook.

I have had several discussions about trying to start waste management systems in small island states, where large-scale funding could be sought and the interest provides a cash incentive for take-back schemes meaning we could pay people to clean the streets. But the money is big and the wages would have to be low such as in a developing country for this model to work.

Refund schemes on containers have long proven to be one of the most effective ways to reduce littering and unnecessary consumption of packaging. A report commissioned in 2007 showed that a 10 cent deposit could stop nearly 1 billion drink containers going to landfill each year and save ratepayers $14 billion.

The main challenge to this is that the people who happily profit from the sale of unnecessary packaging to the public and their powerful lobby groups do not want their volumes to drop, whether it is in the wider public interest or not.

Those that produce the stuff inside this packaging also prefer to control price and - despite the fact that they charge more for a litre of bottled water than a litre of petrol costs at the pump - abhor the idea that a meagre 10 cents would go to keeping it from the street.

But what if the incentive was to promote something else that is in the public interest? Just like Auckland, big cities in China face traffic, air quality and waste problems at the same time. Some very clever people realised that they could use reverse vending machines for rides on public transport.

We could even put credit onto our Snapper or Hop cards by feeding the machines with plastic packaging. The machines are so smart that they can even tell what material that you are putting in - a far more efficient way of recycling than having people standing over a conveyor belt with nose plugs to ward off the rotten milk and food waste stenches.

If anyone out there knows of examples of effective incentives that have led to good behaviour, please share in a comment below.

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