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The Bell Curve, An Interlude
Commercial recycling and waste management by Roger Guzowski

Sep 04, 2012

Roger Guzowski


Best practices, Sustainability, Waste and Recycling

The Bell Curve, An Interlude

OK, so here’s the mea culpa where I realize that I have probably skipped a step during the time that I have been writing this blog. If you have never seen me speak publicly, there is a core tenet that I often talk about that I have found in my 20+ years of implementing recycling and materials sustainability programs. That is that there is a bell curve of participation.

Several times in previous posts I have touched on this bell curve. Other times, I have implied it in my argument chain but not directly addressed it (If you accept that every theory or argument has a sequence of if-then statements that lead you to a conclusion, I realize in reading back that I probably needed to more directly explain this bell curve to help explain how I arrived at my conclusion). So let me take this interlude to fully address this bell curve head on.

To visualize how this works, imagine a traditional-shaped bell curve, the “population curve.” Now imagine overlaid over that curve an upside down bell curve, the “enthusiasm/dedication” curve.

When you put these two curves together, you get a model that looks something like this:

For any recycling or sustainability program to work in perpetuity (and truly be sustainable), it needs to reach that Apathetic Middle. They are the vast majority of the population. Their participation or lack thereof will make or break any program. If you want your program to grow beyond the pilot program stage and become integrated into the daily life of your campus (or any group be it business or municipality or state or even country), you need to reach that apathetic middle.

The problem is that the strategy to reach that Apathetic Middle is completely different from that to reach the Crusaders or 2nd Tier Supporters. It can be one of the hardest barriers to overcome. It is made even more difficult because this is a continuum so there is not a hard and fast point at which you hit the barrier and recognize it. Rather it manifests where each additional marginal step starts to become exponentially harder. Unless you change course, you end up at a point where you are “marching in place” or “treading water” or even sliding backwards as opposed to making progress.

I have never meant the term “Apathetic Middle” to sound disparaging. I first started using the term primarily to get program implementers (who are often within the early adopter category) to recognize how steep the drop off in enthusiasm is as they reach out to this larger segment of the population.

But as you try to expand your program to reach that Apathetic Middle, here are some things to note:

They may have “leanings” either in support of the cause or opposed to the cause, but none of those feelings are strong enough to drive their actions, at least not for long.

This Apathetic Middle has some elasticity to it. A crisis or call to action (the Mobro Garbage Barge, September 11th, an Inconvenient Truth) can result in dramatic temporary swings of the apathetic middle. But the key to that swing is to recognize that it is temporary and that the middle will revert back to its apathy over time and spend the preponderance of its time there. Actually as the call to action ends, there is often a swing into the opposition end of things (the whole “for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction” thing) as the elasticity of the curve brings it back to the middle). Also keep in mind that as powerful as a crisis moment can be when it comes to moving the middle, you cannot have continuous crises or calls to action to move the middle. If you try, they become desensitized. The result is that you end up with a “boy who cried wolf” situation in which they cement their apathy by tuning you out completely.

To reach this middle you need to embrace their apathy because you will not change it for long. To do so, your cause or change: