Our Classrooms are Not Islands: Barriers to Voluntary Sustainability on Campus

Ph.D. student Shana Starobin, Nicholas School of the Environment, was one of seven Duke instructors who participated in a CIT Fellowship program in Fall 2011 focusing on Sustainability in Teaching Practice. This post summarizes some of Starobin’s thoughts during the Fellowship. Starobin and the other CIT Sustainability Fellows are part of the larger group of Trillium Fellows, faculty and other instructors who are committed to incorporating sustainability content into their Duke courses in alignment with Duke’s 2009 campus Climate Action Plan. For more about the Trillium Fellows, contact Charlotte Clark.

Posted on the steel paper towel dispenser in a third floor ladies room near my office, I once found the following “helpful” note (apparently left by an anonymous student-do-gooder on all restroom dispensers in our department).

Brown paper towels are compostable!  If you used paper towels to dry your hands, please bring them downstairs and put them in the compost bin.  Thank you.”

This sign reminded me of why environmentalists often get a bad rap. Despite all good intentions, those deeply devoted to their cause often mistakenly assume that others not only share their same intrinsic motivations but also will blindly follow their initiative without question.

Let’s break down this sign:

The fact that “brown paper towels are compostable” may be important, new information for many people—even the “in-the-know” graduate students. Indeed, it seems illogical and even wasteful to dispose of a used-once, wet paper towel into a plastic trash bag destined for the landfill.  All the more so if Duke has to pay by weight for garbage disposal (they pay for the water in there too!)

Moreover, the sign implicitly suggests that I should reconsider my outrageous choice to use the paper towels to dry my hands in the first place.  The conditional statement “If you used” suggests that some people might not be drying their hands at all, or at least not with these paper towels.  Those who choose paper towels should, thus, feel ashamed and be judged accordingly.

If I did in fact choose to dry my hands with a paper towel—a choice unfortunate for the environment but recommended by public health advocates—this sign calmly recommends me to “…bring [the paper towels] downstairs and put them in the compost bin.”  I— like other colleagues similarly contemplating the meaning of this public sign—envisioned myself descending three flights of stairs, nobly carrying my damp, brown, paper towels in hand to deposit into said community compost bin (location unknown).

If we were to multiply out the number of collective employee and student hours lost to these individual, third-floor paper towel to compost-bin trips, I imagine university representatives—considering the opportunity cost of such valuable time—might descend upon the third-floor ladies room, tear this sign down as well as potentially remove the compost bin from the premises altogether.  There must be a better solution!

Better Solution: Engage Stakeholders and Reconfigure the Default Option

As illustrated in this case, devising appropriate institutional solutions to collective action challenges requires us to delve into the underlying motivations that incentivize human behavior in some directions over others.  The green evangelists—so committed to posting “informative” signs—neglected to evaluate the basic incentives that would likely be driving the next action of most average, rational individuals reading their sign, notably: an evaluation of the opportunity cost of the time associated with composting the paper towel versus simply throwing it in the trash (the standard, default option).

Even better than posting “informative” yet largely unhelpful, judgmental and off-putting signs, that same committed individual—so inspired to preach about the best solutions to our suboptimal waste-management choices—could have instead invested effort in more directly addressing our collective action challenges.

Barring investments in labor to pay staff to manage this system, those individuals who care most about the issue ought to be the first to take initiative for addressing the problem.  In this case, committed individuals might consider:

1) Engaging with other students and staff to discuss the problem and formulate possible solutions to further propose to administrators, staff and voluntary committees involved in building operations.

2) Negotiate with key stakeholders to make “composting” paper towels the default option (and some alternative vessel exclusively for non-paper-towel trash). This would enhance efficiency by making the desired behavior into an intuitive, easy, and lower-cost alternative. As evidenced in financial savings and other similar programs, behavioral changes are often easier to implement when they become the “default option” as opposed to a policy that requires behavior of individuals contrary to their natural inclinations.

3) Provide an alternative vessel in bathrooms to collect the paper towels (which by and large represent the majority of bathroom waste regardless).

4) Organize a group of volunteers and rotate responsibility for disposing full containers daily—thereby eliminating the private costs for each individual to inefficiently carry single paper towels down three flights of stairs.

5) Improve signage. This would include the actual location of the compost bin should community members like to find it, as well as removing judgmental language that might turn-off would-be participants in the first place.

Our Classrooms Are Not Islands

Our classrooms are not islands; they are embedded within our departments, programs, schools and, ultimately, a much larger university ecosystem. Inevitably, students and instructors advancing sustainability initiatives will, thus, need to also consider implications and constraints beyond the micro-level of the classroom.  There are inherent collective action challenges associated with creating shared environmental policies or programs among employees and students within a fairly large community (i.e., your department) within a much larger organization (i.e., Duke University).

In the above mentioned case, the ad hoc “paper towel composting program” and accompanying “information campaign” (notices on paper towel dispensers) was unilaterally implemented by the individual who appeared to have the greatest interest in creating such an initiative and for changing the status quo within our department from “No Composting” to “Composting.”

However, the lack of consultation with affected stakeholders (the other students, staff and employees) combined with a poor design (no bins, no plan for how to efficiently deliver paper towels from floor 3 to compost pile on floor 1) and insufficient and poor communication of relevant information all contribute to the failure of this “composting program” to take off and be implemented within the school.

This case points to the need for local policy creators (this could be YOU in your classroom or department) to take into account the knowledge, interest and experience of would-be policy followers.  If program creators better accounted for their stakeholders (and the fact that participating individuals might not be motivated for the same reasons or have the same information as the creators), they might better understand why individuals opt in or out of voluntary efforts and could pave the way for more effective and innovative grassroots sustainability initiatives on campus.

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