Monday, January 16, 2012

Green nudges: saving trees by default

Credit: David Castillo Dominici
Computers and the Internet could save us millions of trees as well as dollars each year. Still, we stick to our habits and keep on harming the environment because of the status quo bias. In this post we give you a neat little trick to help you save the environment as well as your money - nudging the default.    

Teaching and preaching
Though, we now read books on our iPad's and Kindles, research papers on our laptops and buy train tickets on our smart phones there is still one place where we use a great amount of paper – our educational institutions and our workplaces.

I remember when I was just a little girl our teacher used to preach about how there wouldn’t be any trees to climb, if we weren’t careful with the paper we used. Usually, these sermons were more like prayers since it would only take a short while before we had slipped into our usual habits for using paper - after all, it seemed that no matter how much paper we used, the trees were always there in the school yard the next day.

Obviously, it isn’t only children who are immune to these kinds of preaches. Adults are as well. So how do we nudge people to save paper, short of providing the feedback by cutting down trees outside their windows?

Handing in your paper assignment
Each semester millions of students hand in their essays and assignments on printed paper. Multiply these millions of assignments with the number of the pieces of papers and you could probably reach the moon.

Credit: Salvatore Vuono
For instance, a very conservative estimate for Denmark would be that there are approx. 200.000 students. If each hand in 20 pages twice a year (very very conservative estimate), that makes 8.000.000 pieces of paper. A piece of paper weight 4,8 gr. Thus, the total weight would be 38.400 KG paper. According to some websites it takes 1 tree to produce 2,6 KG of paper. That makes 14.769 trees!... just for the number of university assignments handed in! 

By the way 2,6 KG is what one of those boxes of office paper weights - so it seems that you're cutting a tree down for every box that you open.

(We would be very happy if anyone out there has more precise numbers)

Saving trees by default
While most of us already think of the world in a sustainable perspective by default, few of us have truly aligned our behavior and decisions with this. We mostly do our work and business as usual, and only activate our environmental perspective when prompted.

However, Rutgers University decided to nudge themselves by having their printers switched to printing double sided by default. This saved 7 million sheets of paper in just one semester!

Status Quo bias
Studies as well as real interventions thus show that just by installing printers with the standard option of printing doubled-sided as a default makes us much more likely to use this option.

Why? Because of the status quo bias.

You, or let's say a friend of yours, is probably familiar with buying a magazine subscription because it came with a free gift. But your friend probably also used an unplanned amount of money on the magazine subscription afterwards, because he didn’t make the necessary phone call to cancel the subscription again. Or perhaps your screen saver is still the same as when you received your computer? Or, you still haven't signed up for organ-donation, although you would be willing to donate your organs if the relevant worst case scenario should arise.
Credit: digitalart

You can blame all of this on the status quo bias. The status quo bias keeps us from changing how things are, and instead leaves us floating with the stream.

But as well as magazine companies can take advantage of this bias, it can also be nudged to work in our favor. By installing doubled-sided print as the default, you have to be prompted by a special reason to print one-sided papers before you care about switch the print option back to one-sided prints.

This is an easy change, with a massive beneficial result to help our environment.

How about you - what is your printer set up to?

By Katrine Lund Skov 
with Pelle G. Hansen (since he was never a little girl)

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