The contemporary US recycling paradigm is crumbling.
So long as this trend continues, good recycling practices at the individual level may yield little material benefit. Is there any reason to recycle, then? Why not just trash everything?
Research suggests that pro-environment values and norms can reinforce 'green' behavior. Could the inverse also be true? Can 'pro-sustainability' behaviors, encouraged via design, inculcate new values and inspire action towards building more environmentally-friendly societies?
Alternatively, if sustainability infrastructure is lacking, could the conditions of a built environment cause a 'backsliding' of interest or dedication among otherwise environmentally conscious people?
In 2019, I joined the Pasadena City College Associated Students Sustainability Committee to propose a study on the distribution of waste bins on the PCC campus.
I had previously noticed that recyclable items were frequently tossed in trash bins and that certain bins in high-traffic areas regularly overflowed.
It was unclear to me if this behavior arose more due to student ignorance/cynicism, or more due to poor system design.
Out of curiosity, I conducted a survey of the bins in a small section of campus. I wanted to identify patterns in bin type and waste type and establish a record of the severity of the issue.
I marked bin locations on a printed campus map and took pictures of waste bin contents as I encountered them.
Some patterns emerged pretty quickly.
Recording the different types of bins on campus and their contents led to the natural emergence of a shorthand to describe bin shapes, waste materials, and object types.
This shorthand formed the basis for a formal bin survey system used by other members of the Sustainability Committee.
I established a timeline for the committee to follow, separated into "RESEARCH," "ASSESS," and "NETWORK" categories.
Beyond the bin survey, I proposed a student survey and interviews with faculty, Facilities, and Pasadena government. These networking activities would deepen our understanding of the situation, raise awareness of our project, and establish connections with institutional figures able to directly enact reform.
Using the system that I derived from the initial survey, I created some standardized bin survey materials in order to keep our findings consistent and easy to synthesize.
Team members chose an area of campus to survey using a superimposed grid. They marked bin locations on the map as they found them and recorded their contents in the rubric.
In the initial interview with PCC Facilities, we presented case studies from filled-in maps and the bin content rubrics. The Facilities director told us that he does not himself have a map of where all the bins on campus are. He told us that janitors have personal routes that tend to be passed directly to new hires.
He asked us to complete the map for use by Facilities. He also told us that he'd like to cooperate with us in redistributing bins across campus in accordance with our findings.
After securing the support of Facilities, we carried out a student survey at a campus-wide Earth Day event. We offered paper surveys, as well as a QR code to an online version of the survey, powered by PlatoForms.
The survey contained both quantitative and qualitative components across three sections: satisfaction with bin availability for a variety of materials, value appraisals of PCC Facilities juxtaposed with personal views, and a free response.
The results of the survey were surprising.
All students said that a robust campus recycling infrastructure is important to them. Students were mostly satisfied with PCC's sustainability efforts as a whole.
Notably, bin satisfaction results aligned closely with our own bin survey findings. Students were dissatisfied with compost and paper bin availability – neither of which are present on campus at all – and plastic/metal recycling, which are present on campus in only limited numbers.
The project was ultimately cut short due to the emergence of COVID-19. As on-campus activities resume, I hope to revive the project and see it through, so long as I remain in Los Angeles.