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Understanding Why

A Segmented Approach to Recycling Education

In my last post, I focused on the critical role that information plays in your recycling program. But there is one big piece that information doesn’t cover. That is why. There are a lot of different parts of “why”, depending on what you intend to do with it.


One of the trickiest parts of running recycling or sustainability on a college or university campus is education. Implementing education at an institution whose very mission is education runs into a lot of potential pitfalls and conflicts.

To help avoid some of those conflicts, I think it is important to change our vocabulary and start talking about different component parts and stop lumping them together under the umbrella of education. From my perspective, there are really 5 related but different components of education:

  • Information
  • Promotion
  • Advertising
  • Awareness
  • Curriculum


This involves enlightening people about a particular issue. The problem is that unless your goal is a quasi-Buddhist/new age goal in which enlightenment is the only end goal, awareness is a really tricky thing to work with.

Behavioral change requires combination of factors including awareness, a preferable alternative, opportunity, convenience, promotions and incentive. Having awareness can make someone more receptive to those other elements but it cannot replace them. Some of the most aware people that I know are locked into their current behaviors, either because they don’t have a viable alternative, or because changing that behavior is sufficiently difficult and they lack the incentive and promotions that they are not motivated to change that behavior.


When you combine awareness with training, you get curriculum. Because so much of a college or university campus is dedicated to curriculum, I think this can really confuse things when people try to lump everything together under the title of “education.” Just because you have more curriculum, doesn’t mean that you have more behavior change. As I mentioned earlier about awareness, awareness, and by extension curriculum, does not directly lead to behavior change. I think there is too often a mistaken presumption in which people think that because their campus has a lot of sustainability-related curriculum that they do not need as much other promotional or operational logistics. That is unfortunately not the case.


Promotion is the public encouragement of a certain behavior. Drink [insert favorite beverage here]. Buy [insert favorite brand here]. Recycle. Save the planet. Don’t smoke. All are prime examples of promotions. Promotion, combined with awareness and the right mix of other parameters, is often the critical link between awareness and action.

Promotion is critically linked to operations and infrastructure. Unlike awareness, good promotion can in and of itself lead to behavior change. Promotion can overcome bad infrastructure, and other limiting parameters, at least to a degree. However the degree to which promotion leads to behavior change will always be affected by infrastructure and other limiting parameters. Drink [insert favorite beverage here] promotions may get me to choose that beverage over another on the same shelf. It might get me to go a few stores further to buy it. But if there is nowhere near me to buy the beverage, all the promotion in the world isn’t going to lead to a purchase of the product by me.

That is part of why distribution is so critical in the food and beverage industry and why so many mergers and acquisitions in that industry are related to distribution. I think that too often we forget about the opportunity part of things when we use promotions for non-sales related uses. A “recycle more” promotional message works far better when combined with a convenient to use and easy to understand infrastructure.


Advertising is essentially brand awareness, or message awareness. Think of it as promotion without the action words. Whereas a promotional message might be “Drink [insert favorite beverage here,” your advertising message might simply be “[insert favorite beverage here].”

The goal of most advertising is to interject a positive message about a product or idea into the subconscious so that it triggers or reinforces certain behaviors later. To simplify, it is a reminder. As with awareness, advertising by itself doesn’t do much. But combined with the right infrastructure and opportunity, it can be incredibly powerful. One thing that I can’t stress enough, which goes back to one of my earlier blogs “Are you green but unseen,” I think there is a tremendous opportunity to use the prominence of recycling bins to advertise your broader sustainability message.

So to all my friends and colleagues in the recycling, sustainability, and environmental fields who use blanket statements like “more education is the answer,” I guess I need more information. What kind of education are you looking for?

Written by

Roger Guzowski
Roger Guzowski

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