Why is it that some people do everything they can to recycle and save energy, but others can’t be bothered to put their newspapers in a recycling bag? And how do we get them to change their ways? I’ve been mulling this after attending an Energy Saving Trust forum last week as Green Voice of the UK and meetings of our Billericay Greening Campaign which is trying to get local groups to save energy and cut waste.
The following two incidents struck me as illuminating. Members of our Greening Campaign committee reported back on a visit they’d made to a local junior school, where they met the members of its green group. These kids are aged between five and seven but frankly they could teach us all a lesson. Every day one of them takes responsibility for being ‘green monitor’ and turning off the lights in the classroom and making sure any taps are turned off. They make up pads for their teachers and classmates using paper that’s only been used on one side. And when they receive junk mail through the post, they write back to the corporate perpetrators asking them why they are wasting paper by doing so! Can you imagine being one of those companies and receiving a letter from a five year old?! Our committee members were speechless.
In contrast, over the weekend I was at an event where tea and coffee was served. We were drinking out of plastic cups so, when I’d finished, I asked for the recycling bag. It turned out that they just threw them in the bin each week. “That’s a bit naughty,” I pointed out. “Oh, it’s fine,” said the lady in charge. “We buy them from a pound shop so it’s not a problem.” She didn’t seem to get what I was on about, but perhaps I wasn’t clear enough. All I know is that the school green group wouldn’t have been impressed!
So, how do we get people to change their behaviour? Is it better to incentivise people to go green or introduce punitive fines for repeat offenders? A consultant I met at the Energy Saving Trust forum had a pessimistic view on this. “I really think we should fine people who don’t recycle,” he told me. “It’s the only way to get them to do anything. And energy bills are going to have to go up, too.”
But a heated debate broke out last week between our Greening Campaign committee members over this issue. One member, who claims some of his neighbours never put out any recycling bags, argued that people who don’t recycle should be fined. He claims that this is the only way to make repeat offenders change their ways. Like many others, our council recently introduced fines on a three strikes and you’re out basis. But another member angrily disagreed, arguing that positive measures, such as council tax breaks, were the only way to make people go green.
I asked an energy surveyor I met at the EST forum for his thoughts. Part of his job is visiting homeowners to assess how to make their homes more energy efficient. He said that in his experience he found that the very rich or very poor have no interest in saving energy or going green, but that the people in between were the keenest to take action. The very rich weren’t concerned, he claimed, because they could pay their bills and the very poor tended to be uninterested or lacking in knowledge about the issues – presumably because they have more pressing problems.
Perhaps money is the underlying issue. While people can afford to throw things away, like the group with the pound shop plastic cups, maybe they will continue to do so. Residents in my town have an average carbon footprint that’s 20 per cent higher than the UK norm. Hardly anybody shuts their curtains in the evenings to retain the heat and many people leave multiple lights burning in several rooms. Our town is relatively affluent, so I wonder if people don’t bother to conserve energy because they can afford the bills. But will we always be able to?
I dislike the idea of green taxes and much prefer the idea of giving people a reduction in their council tax or vouchers as incentives to be more environmentally friendly. People are already sceptical about the climate change debate and have enough money worries right now. But even I am beginning to wonder if fines and other punitive measures are the only way to change certain people’s behaviour.
What do you think? Would fines or incentives make you more likely to recycle, go green or save energy? Have you got other ideas? Leave a message and let me know.
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