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Environmentally Friendly Socialization

As sociologists we often encourage students to see the familiar as strange. That is, to look at boring, mundane, and unremarkable in your daily life with new eyes. Nothing is more unremarkable than trash. However, every community must communicate to it’s members how they should properly dispose of waste. In this piece Stephanie Medley-Rath uses a photo essay to show how one community socializes it’s visitors to be environmentally-friendly.

I recently attended the American Sociological Association meetings in Denver, CO. On my trip, I encountered different ways of dealing with trash in public. On the street, I encountered two sided trashcans: one for trash and one for recycling.

I like the idea of being able to easily recycle when I am out in public on the street. The question is, how do I know what should be recycled and what should be trashed? If an item is trash, then it goes inside the part of the trashcan shown on the left. If it recyclable, then it goes inside the part of the trashcan pictured on the right.

Two Sided Trashcans

This type of container on a public street is not all that unusual. In all honesty, beyond aluminium cans, plastic, and paper, I still do not know what types of recyclables can go in the recyclable side of this container. This container’s basic design makes it difficult to just toss items into the recyclable side. The message it seems, is that of if in doubt throw it out.

The garbage/recycling cans inside the convention center explained things a bit better. These containers are labeled with the types of items that should go into each one:

Why would trash and recycling containers be labeled with the types of items that can be placed in it? Everyone knows what is trash and what is recyclable, right?

The list forces you to really think about what items go where and it’s a clear attempt to socialize people. The list would be unnecessary if people already knew the difference between garbage and recyclables. As sociologists we are always interested how people learn the values and behavioral expectations (i.e. social norms) of the community. The process of learning cultural values and social norms is what sociologists call socialization.

I think most people my age, were taught to throw all garbage in the same container. Maybe, we were taught to recycle aluminum cans and newspapers. My daughter is being raised to recycle a bit more (she knows that yogurt containers go into the sink to be rinsed before placed in the recycling bin), but we are limited by what our city can manage. There would be no need for a list of items on a trash/recycling container if most people knew what to put where. Instead, we have to be socialized into being more environmentally aware when it comes to disposing of waste.

Environmentally-aware messages were not limited to the trashcans. There were further “rules” in the public restrooms. There was a sign above the sink imploring me to “use only what [the water] you need,” causing me to ponder how much water do I really need? The sign above the sink at the fast-food restaurant I worked at as a teenager suggested I wash my hands for the length of time it takes sing the “Happy Birthday Song.” So, does that rule still apply?

After washing my hands, I had to choose how to dry my hands. I could use paper towels or a Dyson hand dryer. If I chose paper towels, there was a receptical just for paper towels (apologies for blurriness, I was trying to take photos in a public restroom while not drawing attention to myself):

Throwing away trash, washing our hands, and how we accomplish these tasks is something we take for granted. Some communities are taking extra steps to socialize visitors and residents into environmentally-friendly practices. Signs were conveniently located to teach me where to throw garbage and recycling and how to wash my hands.

Dig Deeper:

  1. Observe how trash and recycling are dealt with in the building you live or work. How does it compare to the author’s experience in Denver?
  2. Visit a public restroom. What kind of signs are posted offering instruction on hand washing? How do these instructions differ from how you were taught to wash your hands?
  3. Besides signs on garbage cans and in public restrooms, how else are we socialized in public? Can you think of a specific example from your own life?
  4. How do the messages you received in the home (i.e., your family) about environmentally-friendly practices differ from those messages you receive outside of the home (i.e., media, peers, government)?