This is the second post in a two-part series on the rebound effect. Missed the first post? Click here!
The new toaster in our house completely changed our breakfast routine. It became so much easier for my parents—who left for their jobs at 8 AM—to ensure that we all had a good meal to start the day.
What we didn’t readily notice was that even though we had an easier morning routine, every second day the house would erupt with an argument: who will refill the stock of bread in the refrigerator? Either dad would have to interrupt his 6 o’clock (or 8 o’clock or 9 o’clock) news, or I would have to bike to the grocery store, interfering with my evening play time. As you can imagine, neither of us volunteered.
It would take mom’s threat of “No toast for tomorrow!” to get one of us moving.
Was the mental strain worth it? It was an added task that came up much too frequently for something that was supposed to make our lives “easier”.
The rebound effect or the Jevons Paradox does that. Overdoing an efficient practice or overusing an efficient product can sometimes create unnecessary, unknown negative consequences that can leave us worse off than before.
The good news: We can avoid the rebound effect
When we observe or expect a rebound, we can either change our approach or use advanced technology, financial incentives and communication strategies to mitigate it.
Here, we’ll discuss some interesting examples and case studies that show how to completely avoid or reduce the rebound effect.
Changing our approach…
If you expect a situation to cause a rebound effect, or you find an activity leading to a rebound effect, the best way to mitigate this is to stop and find an alternative. I’ll give you an example from an experiment I conducted in my home.
We use a Reverse Osmosis (RO) water purifier. These water purifiers waste a lot of water, which always bothered me. I decided to do something about it.
I requested everyone to collect the RO wastewater, so we can wash utensils with it instead of letting it flow down the drain. The idea of water conservation (and my boundless enthusiasm) got everyone onboard with this experiment, and we even bought small buckets to collect the wastewater.
We quickly ran into a problem. Scooping water out of buckets was not getting the primary job done—cleaning the utensils. We were using more water per utensil than when we used the running tap water. Sometimes, we would have to clean the utensils again under the tap.
I didn’t calculate the water use, but everyone agreed that we were not conserving any water with this idea. We may have been using more water than before. What’s more, it made an already tiresome job harder.
So, we stopped and thought of an alternative. Now, we use the wastewater to pre-soak the utensils or wash the floor.
SMART consumption: Technology to the rescue
We never realize how much electricity we use until we get the bill at the end of the month. By then, it’s too late for damage control. We might promise to use less electricity the next month—and succeed for the first few days while the shock of a large bill remains fresh—but it doesn’t last.
What if we use SMART meters that provide real-time information of electricity use?
SMART meters can be programmed to send alerts, either to our phones or through beeps, whenever we exceed a self-imposed threshold. Could regular reminders help us stick to our promise?
It could. Darby, S. 2006 and a series of case studies collected by Maxwell, et. al, 2011 showed that users who received constant feedback through SMART meters and detailed billing information saved 5-15% on their electricity bills.
Target the pocket: Financial incentives
One of the best ways to reduce our ecological footprint is to consume less. If used properly, financial incentives can be effective in achieving this.
The German green electricity company Lichtblick used the cashback model to reward users who consumed less electricity. If consumers used 10% less electricity over a year compared to the last year, the company gave cashback of EUR 20. Definitely a handy incentive!
If cashback are positive incentives, increasing prices or taxes are the negative incentive. We probably can use this strategy to change consumer behavior in retail stores and supermarkets.
It’s widely accepted that we need to stop using plastic bags. Paper bags are the popular alternatives to plastic bags. But papers bags can be worse:
- Manufacturing them is energy intensive. Making one paper bag releases more emissions than making one plastic bag. We must use paper bags at least five times to make their production equivalent to one use of a plastic bag. We often don’t do that because…
- Paper bags are flimsy. They tear under too much weight. Also, to carry the same weight, people sometimes use multiple paper bags when one plastic bag could get the job done.
- Most paper bags end up in landfills, where they rot and emit CO2 and methane, dangerous GHGs.
So, if we use as many paper bags as plastic bags, things can get really bad.
The best alternative to paper and plastic bags is cloth bags, which last months or years. Many supermarkets and retail stores charge users who request a plastic bag, but I think it should extend to paper bags. I also think the charge on a plastic/paper bag should be at least INR 30 compared to the current INR 5, if we want lasting change. What do you think?
Get the message across…
Communication and awareness generation can enhance our technology and financial incentives to create lasting behavior change. There has been an element of communication and awareness generation in all the examples I’ve outlined in this post. For instance, providing energy use alerts through SMART meters is a form of awareness generation, reminding the consumer about his/her electricity use.
Communication activities are useful to discourage “licensing”.
Licensing is when consumers make one sustainable choice and over use it—causing a direct rebound effect—or give themselves the permission to slack off in other areas, causing an indirect rebound effect.
If you recycle used paper in your office, do you feel justified to use more paper? This is possible, as Jesse Catlin and Yitong Wang found in their experiments on the effects of recycling on resource consumption.
How can you counter this? Your workplace can set up individual “paper use targets” and put up pictures of the employees who meet this target on the office bulletin*. This will make them continue their good practices and also create a social pressure for others to use less paper.
(*But make sure you keep a significant target: 20% reduction in paper use. Getting recognition for minor tasks can breed complacency, making people less likely to continue their good work—this is called slacktivism.)
Sometimes, people are just unaware of the rebound effect, and don’t realize that it’s happening in their lives. And people are more likely to change their behaviors if they know how their actions will affect the environment. In fact, this is what I am trying to tap with this blog post series!
For more examples of communication strategies, I highly recommend that you read this Harvard Business Review article.
Whether it is your water use, electricity consumption, grocery shopping, or email habits, choosing environment-friendly options may not always benefit the environment. Looking for the rebound effect and actively trying to avoid it allows us to make sure we don’t inadvertently hurt the environment. This is the essence of being eco-intelligent.
Just ask yourself: Am I overdoing this eco-friendly activity?