Treat your toaster as part of the family; it’s good for the environment

Really want to reduce waste? Take care of your possessions and use them to their full potential

There’s a belief that storing material goods is less wasteful because it keeps them out of the landfill. Not only is that view short-sighted, but a University of Alberta marketing researcher said it also fails to consider the loss of utility that could have been put to use by someone else.

Saurabh Rawal
Saurabh Rawal

Saurabh Rawal, a marketing PhD student in the Alberta School of Business, explained the three pairs of shoes not worn in over a year, the breadmaker purchased but never used, the forgotten shirts and pants in the back of the wardrobe, are all examples of waste because people who could have used them are instead forced to use up additional resources from the environment to buy new ones.

“If you look at that from a system level, the system has acquired two breadmakers but created value from one,” said Rawal. “The other one is waste.”

If we want to reduce waste, he said holding a little more reverence for our material goods is a good place to start.

“The climate change issue is often thought of as a waste issue and that if we solve the waste problem, climate change would be very easy to address,” said Rawal.

In one yet-to-be-published study examining the notion that anthropomorphizing products leads to less waste, Rawal asked participants to imagine they have a toaster they haven’t used for a year. He then asked them to describe the toaster as it is, or describe it as a person.

“We anthropomorphize our possessions, we refer to products as having personalities – the unhelpful laptop that won’t start, the smart Roomba – and we even name our cars,” he said. “It’s not a completely ridiculous or unfamiliar domain for us.”


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When describing the toaster as is, the subjects largely talked about their own needs and wants. For example, even if they’re not using the toaster right now, they might want to use one in the future. However, if the owners didn’t use the toaster for over a year, they’re not likely to use it in the future.

When asked to anthropomorphize the lesser kitchen appliance, however, people wrote about how the toaster might be wanting to be used. This made participants feel bad about their decision to indefinitely store the toaster and, in turn, become more likely to give it to someone who will use it.

When Rawal then asked participants what was to happen to the toaster, participants were more willing to try to find it a good home so its remaining value gets realized.

“They actually felt bad for the toaster, which makes sense,” he said.

“When we anthropomorphize a possession, we form an attachment with it and are more likely, if we have no use for it any longer, to dispose of that possession to others in society.”

He added that if we really want to nudge people into making less wasteful decisions, we need to recognize that discarded items aren’t the problem, but a symptom of something much more complex.

For instance, Rawal said our concern with plastic waste focuses mainly on what plastic waste does – how it stays in the environment for centuries, destabilizes the ecology and causes harm to animals and people.

The solutions – biodegradable plastics and recycling programs – don’t address waste and, according to Rawal, actually lead to even more consumption.

To ensure that we’re not forever managing waste, Rawal argues that we need to get away from seeing waste as something we discard and see it instead as something we failed to responsibly use to its full utility.

Rawal explained that we have traditionally encouraged people to be less wasteful in two important ways: by talking about how waste is going to harm the environment and how it is going to harm future generations.

Rawal said the problem with these two approaches is that they are psychologically distant motivations.

“Even if you tell me that a soda can I threw away is going to harm the environment, I can’t really understand how that one single can is going to affect the environment or future generations.”

Instead, Rawal said, focusing on the product and re-examining our appraisal of that product is increasingly likely to be more effective than emphasizing some unfathomable eventualities.

“If my attitude toward products was about taking care of them and ensuring their utility is used, I would actually be less wasteful – I would recycle them and repair them because I care about the product and respect the product.”

| By Michael Brown for Troy Media

This article was submitted by the University of Alberta’s Folio online magazine. Folio is a Troy Media Editorial Content Provider Partner.


The views, opinions and positions expressed by columnists and contributors are the authors’ alone. They do not inherently or expressly reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of our publication.

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