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Recycling Education in Residence Halls, Part 2

Optimizing Recycling Education for Students

Whether you have dormitories, suites, houses, on-campus apartments, or even a yurt (all of which for simplicity’s sake I will collectively refer to as residence halls), those residence halls are home for any resident students that you have on campus for the 8+ months per year that they live on campus. That means that at some point you are going to need to do recycling education in the residence halls. The question is who delivers the message? Who prepares it?

In part 1 of this post, I proposed that the most effective way to deliver this education is a hybrid system that uses the existing access of the resident assistants (RAs) and bolsters it with a smaller group of expert and enthusiastic enviro-liaisons (ELs) working in more of a support role.

In addition to the distribution-of-reps issue that I discussed in part 1, this hybrid system has several advantages:

Access: A big issue is access. Take bulletin boards. Quite frankly, there is not enough bulletin board space in most residence halls for every cause to get their own dedicated board. If your recycling education was provided only by the ELs, this becomes a significant issue. If you are able to convince residential life to provide an EL with dedicated bulletin board space, you run the risk that it is one small bulletin board located in a space where the preponderance of students don’t see it. From a statistical standpoint, you may be able to convince yourself that you are providing education to the entire building because you will have one bulletin board in every residence hall, but realistically, if the preponderance of students who need to see the information are not walking by the bulletin board, are you doing anything more than contributing to overprinting on campus?

RAs typically already have bulletin boards in really good locations in each building. What if you could tap into that network and take advantage of those locations?

That was the crux of one of the big breakthroughs that came for me early in my career. We were having a heck of a time getting education out to residence halls. Whenever we put posters up, they were in remote locations or areas the custodians would tear them down right after we put them up. We tried handing out flyers, but found most of them discarded about 20 feet from where we handed them out. None of our printed education seemed to be working. Then one day when having lunch with someone from Residential Life, I stopped and listened more closely to the RA responsibilities. I realized that as part of their position, they had to put up 3 educational bulletin boards per semester about the topic of their choosing. It could be a public health issue, a social justice issue, an environmental issue, etc. So we changed tactics. Rather than try to put posters up ourselves, I focused on putting together a package for each RA with a cover that essentially said “here’s one of your 3 bulletin boards already prepared for you, all you have to do is add a header and some decoration of your choosing.” The result was that our educational material (that otherwise wasn’t working) was suddenly posted on over 90% of the floors – in really prominent locations. Not only did we have the additional coverage, we had a support from the RAs neither of which we could have imagined happening to that degree in our wildest fantasies prior to that breakthrough moment.

Ease of ignorance: From my experience, if you concentrate all of your environmental information in one place, it becomes too easy for the folks who need to get that info to ignore it. I think that happens often if you rely too heavily on the ELs to deliver the education. At the risk of getting all Jessica Seinfeld on you, it’s a bit like my kids and vegetables. If you concentrate all the veggies on one part of the plate and tell them they’re vegetables, my kids will ignore them. But if you intersperse the veggies in something they want (like veggies mixed into in lo mein noodles) they will eat stuff they would never otherwise consider. If the only place to see environmental information is on the EL’s environmental bulletin board, or other EL programming, how likely is someone who is apathetic about the environment to stop at that bulletin board or go to that EL event to read the info? But, by working in conjunction with the RAs, if you can sneak a little bit of provocative info someplace it’s tougher to ignore (say the bulletin board outside the restrooms where someone might be standing waiting for a friend to come out, or waiting without a cell phone for their turn in the shower and prone out of boredom to read anything on the wall) – those little beet brownies of recycling information will often be digested by folks who would otherwise avoid that information.

Relatability: As I discussed in a prior post, there is a bell curve of enthusiasm and participation when it comes to sustainability initiatives like recycling. Without getting into a debate about where the midpoint of that curve is for the average college student, the issue is that the average EL is typically far left of that midpoint and often struggles to relate to their midpoint peers. The result, if you rely exclusively on ELs to do education, is that in many residence halls you never really get the relatable peer-to-peer interaction that this position was designed to achieve. When it comes to recycling education in the residence halls, just remember that the “who” often matters as much as the “what.” If you have other success stories or challenges, that you want to share with other readers, join in the conversation.

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Roger Guzowski

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