Chute the messenger

Rubbish chute
Rubbish chute

This is a communal rubbish chute serving a block of flats. The cross-sectional area of the aperture revealed by opening the hatch should be smaller than the cross-sectional area of the chute itself, so there’s less chance of rubbish bags getting stuck, even when someone crams one in.

That aperture dimension is important. It (to a large extent) determines the volume of rubbish that can be thrown away in one go. That in turn determines the size of the bins that users of this chute will (probably) have in their houses or flats, and thus how often the bin will have to be emptied. Taking the rubbish out can be a chore; halving the bin size doubles the number of trips to the chute, doubles the inconvenience.

It is, therefore, more desirable not to throw too much away. At the very least, having a smaller bin will make users aware more often of just how much waste they’re generating.

But does that have any measurable effect on purchasing decisions in the first place, assuming that more minimally packaged products are available as an alternative to those with excess packaging? How strongly coupled are the (limited) affordance of a smaller bin, and, at a couple of removes, in-store decisions? Is that rubbish bin, or indeed the chute aperture itself a social actor, a messenger, capable of persuading people to change their behaviour purely by existing with one set of dimensions rather than another?

Effectively, do people with smaller rubbish bins in their houses consciously buy items with less packaging?

Where else is this modified affordance -> inconvenience -> behaviour change pattern used as a strategy? As with making parking spaces deliberately smaller to make owning a large vehicle less convenient, the strategy may have some potential.


  1. David Cain

    No. Not in our case.

    We’re (the wife and I) all about reducing our carbon debt right now: fluorescent bulbs, planning for more fuel-efficient cars, insulating, putting computers to off instead of sleep, looking at what we can do to reduce energy use in the house.

    But we buy what we have to buy, and the manufacturers pack it all in whatever they like.

    We pay for our trash hauling and recycling (single family home in the US, trash hauled by private firm, single large bin that’s designed to have the truck lift it).

    We’ve got small trash cans in the house – the kitchen can is annoyingly small for my tastes – and the packaging, where annoyingly large, goes right outside to sit by the bin. Not even a factor here.

    We don’t like the amount of packaging used, but we feel powerless to do anything about it.

    ThinkGeek just sent me a flat half-Letter-page sized package of stickers in a cardboard box about 8″ x 10″ x 2″ filled with crumpled paper for “padding”. What can we do about that? The same shipment of four tiny items came in four boxes around the same size. My brother received them in another city, then to send ’em to me (birthday presents) took them to a pack-and-mail store which put all four in an even bigger box and dumped Styrofoam peanuts in there for extra padding. WTF? It’s a packaging AND a carbon disaster.

    Would I buy a different product based only upon reduced packaging size? I think only for a commodity product like light bulbs where brand and quality aren’t big deals.

    Our stereo (a home theater system) came in an enormous box about half the size of a full-height phone booth, with tons of extra cardboard and Styrofoam. It really sucked, but on the other hand, is the size of the cardboard box a concern at all for anyone purchasing a stereo? Probably last in a very long list.

    We did take the stereo box to the recycling center on a trip out.

    What might make a change? Weigh the recyclables and the trash and charge me for the difference. I could choose to cut down on the volume of both, or buy more recyclable than non-recyclable stuff (or better yet, buy in bulk or in packaging that gets reused – though hauling around reusable soda bottles for deposit as they did in my youth probably doesn’t help with the greenhouse gases at all…).

  2. Where I live (and increasingly across the UK, AIUI) the council will take exactly one “wheelie bin” worth of general mixed rubbish each week. It’s only about 2 or 3 large black bin bags if you can imagine that volume. They will take as much sorted recyclable material as you want.

    I live with my wife and no kids and we probably fill the wheelie bin up about half full each week, so no problem for us normally. Disposing of larger items (furniture and so on) involves a trip to the local tip, which would be impossible or prohibitively expensive without a car.

    Next door with 3 kids, their bin is regularly overflowing — in fact we usually take a bit of their rubbish.

    Anyway to get to my point: One thing I do is a lot of food shopping at both the local supermarket and the local butchers / veg market. The difference in volume of packaging is very noticable indeed. After preparing food bought at the supermarket, you end up with heavy plastic wrappers, trays, etc. After shopping at the butchers and market however I would normally just have a few paper bags (composted) and one or two plastic bags (reused). The supermarkets need to do a lot more to reduce packaging waste.


  3. Camerontw

    Sustainability researchers, particularly European ones, have been arguing throughout the early 00s that servicization is the best way to leap to more sustainable economies: i.e., you don’t need a car, you need mobility (= car-share); you don’t want a washing machine, you want clean clothes (= laundromat). However, the common sense idea that the more productive use of pooled resources like shared cars and communal laundries is more sustainable has proved difficult to establish – there are invariably mitigating factors, like the transport involved in getting to and from the pooled resource (vs the one right outside or inside your house). Nevertheless, one of the major sustainability gains of the use of many services rather than owned products derives from their inconvenience (despite a lot of ‘service design’ – i.e., unintended inconvenience). People who use car-share tend to travel less by cars overall, and people who use laundromats tend to do less frequent, larger load washes.

    I was also reminded of the new urbanism slogan: small fridges make for livable cities [small fridge > more, smaller shops > local, walkable shops > vibrant cities].

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  5. Dan

    Richard Reynolds sends me this comment:

    I was asking myself these questions this week. I have the very same chute pictured in my building and whilst I marvel at the elegance of plopping a bin bag through the hatch and hearing it tumble down ten storeys I also weary of emptying the bin so often. A 20 litre bag (from my Brabantia Pedal Bin + Bio Bucket) is the perfect size, but it fills within two days, but accept that regular trips down the corridor are better than occasional trips all the way downstairs.

    What I dream of is multiple chutes for recycling. You see I also have a 50 litre pedal bin for paper and card waste but this has to be carried downstairs and over the road to the street recycling centre. It fills within a fortnight.

    An alternative, which I tried recently whilst staying in an old mill, is to burn almost everything. Four of us over five days eating fine meals only generated 40 litres of waste for the bins, the rest went on top of the coal and into the fire, reducing the carbon cycle by thousands of years.

  6. This may vary by location, but where I live (western US) smaller parking spaces have in no way deterred people from purchasing and driving large vehicles. They just park their behemoth Suburban or Hummer or whatever in the too-small parking slot, making it difficult or impossible for anyone to park next to them. And they’re not shy about parking with their tires on the painted stripe, either.

  7. I recently returned from Switzerland, and loved their system. You purchase red garbage bags at the market. Trash has to go into the red bags. Built into the price of the bag is the cost for picking up and disposing of your garbage. No other trash is picked up. Recycling is free, and there are bins for different types of materials.

    Also, food markets (at least the ones we went to) do not provide bags for your merchandise. You can purchase bags that are reuasable. This is similar to Costco in the US. They also do not provide bags, but they do keep their used boxes close to the registers, so you can reuse their boxes, which also saves them on the disposal costs.

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