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Everything I Know I Learned from Where?


One of the trickiest parts of running recycling or sustainability on a college or university campus is education. Implementing recycling 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

It is critically important to differentiate them because each has different values, and not all of them are the appropriate solution to a given situation. For example, you may have a professor on campus that is world renowned for their climate science research. If you were looking to develop curriculum related to the issue or information that just raises awareness about the issue, that faculty member might absolutely be the best person to talk to. But if you are looking for a graphic designer to develop labels for your recycling bins, or a sticker to put on light switches to encourage people to turn out the lights; or someone to help promote behavior change, or develop a marketing plan to sell the “green” features of your campus, that same faculty member may be no more qualified than your landscaper, and may be even less so. That is in no way shape or form a knock on that faculty member. But it does highlight the need to talk about recycling/sustainability/environmental education in more targeted and focused terms.


With that in mind, let me start by focusing this on Information. This is the basic who, what, when & where pieces of the puzzle. Generally information is everything but the why.

Information is critical to making any program work. I don’t care how aware someone is or how driven to action they are, without some basic information, your program falls apart. For recycling, do you know where the bins are? Do you know what to put in each bin? Just as importantly, do you know what not to put into the bin? You’ve got a recycling bin at your desk or in your student room. What do you do with it when it’s full? Does someone pick it up or do you have to take it somewhere? Say you’re a student and when you move into your room, there is a recycling bin but no trash can. Did someone forget to put the bin there or was it deliberate and you are expected to go buy a trash bin yourself? Without information, you don’t know. And not knowing will completely undermine your program. For a few to not know is no big deal, they will seek out the information on their own. But for many, if they don’t receive the information that they need, they will give up and start throwing recyclables into the trash far too often.

If you are managing both recycling and other aspects of sustainability, keep in mind that this information is critical for all of those aspects, not just recycling. One of my favorite examples is dual flush toilets. Typically, these have a “pull the handle one way for a less-water- flush to flush away only liquids” and a “pull the handle the other way for a more-water-flush to flush away solids” function. Used correctly, these can be an important water saving tool. The problem is that you need information to ensure they are used correctly. Too often I have seen these implemented without information. As a result, too often people use the wrong setting, or end up using both flush settings to get the job done, and water use actually increases. The net result is some folks frustrated with sustainability and more receptive to anti-sustainability “these initiatives don’t matter” detractors who you have inadvertently given extra credence to. All of which could have been avoided with a modicum of information and instruction.

Information and Infrastructure

With recycling, information in inseparable from your operational infrastructure. Do your bins have restrictive openings (a slot for the paper bin and a round hole for the bottles & cans)? If so, you can focus less of your information on the category/stream of material that your bin is for. You will still need to provide specifics (e.g. please include plastic soda bottles but not plastic sandwich wrappers), but the need for “hey this bin is only for bottles and cans, stop putting trash in here” information will be greatly reduced.

The same is true with your recycling site. How hard the site is to find will predicate how much information you need to provide people with. Are your bins in a special trash and recycling room on each floor? If so, of all the doors on the floor, how do you know which one is for the recycling room? You don’t need some sort of 3-D, GPS-tracking cell phone app to help someone find the room (though if you want to take the time to design one, knock yourself out), but you probably at least need a sign on the door and some basic instruction to the people in the building about where they need to bring their stuff.

Pictures and Graphics

The other thing that I can’t encourage enough, though it might sound cliché is that a picture really is worth a thousand words. Wherever you can, show a picture of what you do (and don’t) want in your recycling bins. Show a picture of where the recycling site is.

Remember, you often have only a few seconds before someone puts something in the wrong bin. You want every edge you can get to ensure that they do the right thing in that time.

Pictures can ensure that you don’t miss your window of opportunity to text fatigue. In an average day, folks see a lot of words. From textbooks, to reports, to websites, to message boards, to posters in the hallway, there are a lot words, so much so, that other words often become “background noise.” Limit the amount that people have to read and you might be pleasantly surprised at the results. Pictures can also ensure that you don’t miss your window of opportunity due to language barriers. Especially on a college or university campus, may have a lot of folks for whom English is not their first or primary language. Adding a picture can convey information within the few-second window that you have in a way that text might not.

If you are faced with a lack of participation, or a lack of results, don’t immediately assume that you need to ramp up your promotion and advocacy. What you might need instead is just a little bit more information.

Read Part 2 “Understanding Why”

Written by

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Roger Guzowski

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