Garbage and the Herd Mentality

In our recent podcast "Riding the Herd Mentality," we discussed how the actions of people around you significantly affects your behavior. A new paper studies garbage and litterers, and whether more garbage begets more garbage. Researchers Robert Dur and Ben Vollaard collected data for three months in a densely populated residential area in Rotterdam for some 4,000 households. The abstract:

Field-experimental studies have shown that people litter more in more littered environments. Inspired by these findings, many cities around the world have adopted policies to quickly remove litter. While such policies may avoid that people follow the bad example of litterers, they may also invite free-riding on public cleaning services. This paper reports the results of a natural field experiment where, in a randomly assigned part of a residential area, the frequency of cleaning was reduced from daily to twice a week during a three-month period. Using high-frequency data on litter at treated and control locations before, during, and after the experiment, we find strong evidence that litter begets litter. However, we also find evidence that some people start to clean up after themselves when public cleaning services are diminished.

Your Garbage Questions, Answered

Last week, we solicited your questions for journalist Edward Humes, who seems to love trash as much as we do. His new book is Garbology: Our Dirty Love Affair with Trash. 

Below are his answers to some of your questions. He writes about New York City's cleanup, the facts about burning trash and recycling, how incentives work (or fail) when it comes to trash, and, of course, the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.

Thanks to Humes for answering so many questions, and to all of you for your good questions (and candor).

Bring Your Questions for Edward Humes, author of Garbology

We are quite fond of talking trash, literally: see our "Economics of Trash" podcast, and our "Weird Recycling" episode, and even the "Power of Poop."

The journalist Edward Humes is also fascinated with trash. His new book Garbology: Our Dirty Love Affair with Trash is about the 102 tons of garbage the average American produces in a lifetime. Humes writes about what's in our trash, how different communities deal with it, and how we might could think about trash differently: "Waste is the one environmental and economic harm that ordinary working Americans have the power to change — and prosper in the process." 

Humes has agreed to field your trash questions, so ask away in the comments section and, as always, we’ll post his answers in short order.