Recycling at UBC: Making it as easy as 1-2-3

I go to UBC, which is on its way to becoming one of the most sustainable universities in North America. UBC states: SUSTAINABILITY defines UBC as a university. Through our collective efforts in education, research, partnerships and operations, we advance sustainability on our campus and beyond.” With the UBC Sustainability Initiative leading the charge, UBC is committed to focusing on the campus as a living laboratory and the university as an agent of change. In fact, UBC is home to the greenest building in North America.

Opened in 2011, the Centre for Interactive Research on Sustainability (CIRS) is a “living laboratory” that is currently the most sustainable building in North America.

I am proud of what UBC has accomplished. I am proud of what UBC has committed to. I am proud of what UBC is working on. I am not proud of UBC’s current recycling practices, or the unsustainable recycling behaviour of UBC students. Some might argue that students have the tools to recycle. Our containers in the Student Union Building are biodegradable. We have recycling bins. We’re discussing a move to ban the sale of bottled water on campus. So why do I see photocopies and soda cans in the trash? Our student body is educated; we know better than to engage in this sloppy and lazy behaviour. So why don’t we?

We know that to influence behaviours, we must engage in (some of) the following activities:

  1. Remove barriers
  2. Provide incentives
  3. Impose penalties for alternate behaviours
  4. Give feedback
  5. Capitalize on commitment
  6. Use prompts
  7. Develop social norms
  8. Communicate congruently

With respect to norms, we are all socially aware of the injunctive norm that we need to recycle. However, all across campus we are surrounded by descriptive norms of those who throw everything in the trash rather than take the time to recycle. I have done some observation as well as questioned my peers, and I believe the main barriers to recycling on campus are:

  1. Poor recycling facilities / bins
  2. Unclear labeling of which items go in which bin
  3. Lack of prompts

In the Sauder School of Business’s home building, Henry Angus, we have minimal availability of recycling facilities / bins. I  believe that students want to recycle, we just aren’t given easy access to the necessary tools. Personally, despite my knowledge or recycling, I find it de-motivating that when I leave my classrooms, I have to first find a place to recycle. There are perhaps two disposal bins per floor for recycling, but garbage bins aplenty, and I have only ever found paper recycling bins – we do not have any recycling bins for cans or aluminum or organic waste that I am aware of (at least nearby classrooms). Furthermore, the bins we have are the massive bins that belong in the storage room. Well-organized bins, such as the ones below, would clearly illustrate where waste should be placed and would ultimately increase the frequency of recycling.

I propose we develop an organized waste management system that incorporates four to five clearly labelled bins, using visuals and colour to engage students and make the system simple. There should be a bin for (landfill) waste, food waste, paper products, organic products, and glass / aluminum products. Other schools have achieved great success with similar systems. They do not need to be large, and can actually be quite visually appealing. Placing these waste management systems in classrooms and hallways will inevitably increase the frequency of proper waste disposal by UBC students, furthering UBC’s commitment to a macro sustainable behaviour change.

Sample Organized Waste Management System

Additionally, I think UBC can do more to provide feedback to students. Our campus in well enroute to being sustainable; communicate this to students! Too many students are unaware of the initiatives, which I find sad because it is such a great source of pride for the UBC community. I mean, come one – which UBC student doesn’t want another bragging point when we illustrate our superiority over UVic?