Trash bins, staples and more unintended consequences

Like most university departments and business offices generally, my department has a workstation near the copy machine. It is a large wood table with staplers, tape, paperclips, pens, a cutting board and other items one might need to manage copies, reports, etc. While there have always been the occasional used, bent staple left on the table, I have noticed a substantial increase in the number of discarded staples on the table. Why?

The University of Missouri has initiated a “low waste initiative” (a report about the program in the campus newspaper is here). The intent is to reduce general waste and to promote recycling. Trash cans from office spaces have been removed and replaced with a blue recycling bucket. Attached to the bucket is a small black bin for non-recyclable waste. These black bins are about the size of a large cupholder you might find in a car. Unfortunately, they are not attached to all recycling bins, and there are none near the copy machine workstation or office commons. So what do people do when they remove staples from paper? Ideally they should walk down the hall to a “black bin” to discard the staples. But that is not happening. Since regular trash bins at the workstation are now gone, the staples end up left on the workstation table.

An accumulation of discarded stables on workstation tables is an unintended consequence of the University’s low waste trash program.

Discarded staples are not a threat to world peace and they don’t contribute to climate change, but they are a nuisance and a minor hazard. They are sharp and are not sanitary, so getting inadvertently poked by one could become a painful problem.

There are always consequences for changes in policies, programs and incentives. While we can be careful and thoughtful in considering “all” the ramifications of changes we make to rules and policies, there will often be unintended consequences, both good and bad.

A working paper by National Bureau of Economic Research scholars identifies an interesting but negative unintended consequence to a program designed to promote greater school attendance. In their report, the authors described an experiment in which students were rewarded for meeting an attendance threshold at school. The reward produced the expected results. The reward increased school attendance. However, when the reward program ended, there were unintended effects. As stated by the authors:

Among students with high baseline attendance, the incentive had no effect on attendance after it was discontinued, and test scores were unaffected. Among students with low baseline attendance, the incentive lowered post-incentive attendance, and test scores decreased. For these students, the incentive was also associated with lower interest in school material and lower optimism and confidence about their ability. This suggests incentives might have unintended long-term consequences for the very students they are designed to help the most.

So the introduction of an incentive had the unintended consequence of driving out or reducing intrinsic motivation, a topic I have studied (here).

While we may not be able to anticipate all unintended consequences — that’s why they are “unintended” — we can probably do better than we are. And when we identify them, and if the consequences are significant enough, then we should consider revisions to the programs and policies we have implemented. I don’t know if the University of Missouri will be changing its “low waste program” anytime soon, but it would sure be nice to have a more convenient way of discarding used staples.


Author: Harvey James

Professor, Agricultural and Applied Economics, University of Missouri Editor-in-chief, Agriculture and Human Values

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