A small nudge, big impact for recycling mercury thermostats.
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The Nudge: A Nobel Winning Solution to Increasing the Recycling of Mercury Containing Thermostats?

Posted Jun 4, 2018

The Nudge:  A Nobel Prize Winner’s Solution to Increasing the Recycling of Mercury Containing Thermostats?

I have a writer friend who loves the word tripwire. He favors it because it implies immediacy, power and effect. We often think of a tripwire as a device that sets off a bomb or booby trap. I prefer the word nudge. While it lacks the firepower (if you’ll forgive the pun) of tripwire, it has a more realistic feel and is easier and safer to understand and implement.

I’m fascinated by the nudge idea. It seems to be the spine for many behavioral economists. It combines free choice, easy rejection and a free market approach that I find appealing. As important, it can often make a significant change or improvement. For a more formal definition, according to the book, Nudge, it “… is any aspect of the choice architecture that alters people’s behavior in a predictable way without forbidding any options or significantly changing their economic incentives. To count as a mere nudge, the intervention must be easy and cheap to avoid. Nudges are not mandates. Putting the fruit at eye level counts as a nudge. Banning junk food does not.”

The word nudge in the context of behavioral economics became famous during the economic crisis of 2008. A University of Chicago economics professor, Richard H. Thaler, and a Harvard law professor, Cass R. Sunstein, wrote Nudge to suggest that change — sometimes tremendous transformation — can occur, even though from the outside, the effort didn’t really seem like a big deal. The book was a bestseller no doubt helped by the fact that Thaler won a Nobel Prize for Economics. (That it is still in print suggests the book’s durability.) That award doesn’t guarantee that he can’t be wrong. It does mean that his views on how to implement economic ideas, like the nudge, merit attention.

If I’m fascinated by the idea of an organizational nudge, it is because I’m constantly pondering how it might affect our mission and how it could demonstrate to our industry partners, environmental groups and various regulators that TRC is looking to improve our efforts to recycle mercury containing thermostats in a universe with declining numbers.

But as our efforts enter maturity —this year is our 20th anniversary — the question arises regarding what can we to continue the same trajectory as we have in the past? And if that is impossible, given the realities of the industry and our market, then we must ask what force(s) we can unleash that bring us closer to recycling those final thermostats.

Here are a few examples of a nudge. Texas apparently had struggled with roadside litter. Through a thoughtful and persistent anti-littering campaign, the State Dept. of Transportation came up with the slogan, “Don’t Mess with Texas.” First year tally? The program reduced roadside litter by 29 percent. “In its first six years, there was a 72 percent reduction in visible roadside litter. All this happened not through mandates, threats or coercion but through a creative nudge,” according to Thaler. Upward of 95 percent of Texans were aware of the slogan, he says and I’ll be the first to admit that I own a “Don’t Mess with Texas t-shirt.  First to reply requesting a picture of me in it and I will oblige.

The authors then spend a chapter on Saving the Planet, certainly waters in which we swim. He points out (as do later writers) that by letting people know the amount of their energy usage, compared with their neighbors, they became more energy conscious.

We held the Biggest Man on Planet — now renamed Banish Mercury Off the Planet — competition over the years and we hoped that it was a nudge to HVAC wholesalers, letting them know where they stood in relation to other wholesalers in efforts to recycle mercury containing thermostats. We also do this with a public release of our running totals from various recyclers throughout the year. We suspect a little competition just might move some organization to nudge their way closer to the top.

We also began implementing a small pail switch out program for any collection point.  The premise was looking at data to determine the viability of such an option.  The analysis provided that there were statistically significant number of stores (≃10%) that over roughly a 2-year period, shipped six or less thermostats.   The pail provided a smaller option to encourage more frequent bin returns for the program.  The results are still a little early to judge but early indications are promising — opting-in collection locations to use a small pail has a positive effect on bin returns. 

Let me admit it. I spend time thinking about what other “nudge” could TRC implement that would have a significant increase in our collection efforts. I’m still thinking about that one.

Recently, I did arrive at a nudge that mimics the book. One of the more fascinating aspects of Thaler’s book is how he concludes it. At the end of the book, he praises and publishes 20 nudge suggestions from his readers. (One of those appears to be a forerunner to the Uber and Lyft idea.)

That’s a worthy consideration for my readers. Here’s the nudge: If you can think of a change, under the rubric of behavioral economics, marketing, psychology or just plain common sense, and you have an idea of how we can increase our collection of mercury containing thermostats, I’m interested. If we implement your nudge, I promise to try to make you semi-famous in the world of recycling mercury containing thermostats. You can reach me at ryan.kiscaden@thermostat-recycle.org. Consider this offer a modest nudge.