Education, Ease are Keys to Sustainable Behavior

Many universities are working hard to reduce their institutional carbon footprint. However, convincing and assisting individuals to take effective actions can prove challenging. University personnel must overcome key barriers, including apathy, physical obstacles and ignorance.

“People don’t have to pay that gas or electric bill, so they begin to separate themselves from the need to control the heat because it’s not their financial responsibility,” says Don Erb, residential facilities manager at SUNY-Buffalo. “We remind them that it’s part of the room rental and the right thing to do is to control the temperature by first closing the window, then turning on the heat.” Erb notes that each year he sees a reduction in the number of instances of students running the heat in their dorm rooms while windows are open.

The problem of students opening up a window in the middle of winter to cool down an overheated dorm room is first a structural issue. Older buildings often have centralized thermostats which don’t allow heat and cooling control in individual rooms. “Students bring electric heaters to supplement, or they open the windows to cool things down,” says Bruce Franz, director of facilities management at North Dakota State University.

Even in rooms with individual thermostats, students are more likely to open up a window if the controls are difficult to reach. “Right now, students in one of our buildings have to get on their hands and knees and go underneath the furniture to move a dial. The more diligent will go move the dial, but the less diligent will control the temperature by opening a window,” says Erb. So, renovation plans are underway at SUNY-Buffalo to convert those hard-to-reach dials into wall thermostats, which will make it easier for the students to properly control their room temperature and save energy.

Once structural barriers are addressed, most programs to increase the sustainability of the campus require an educational component. People need to know what they can do to make a difference. “We tell them the equivalent energy savings in carbon or planting of trees. If you save this much energy, it’s like taking fifteen cars off the road. If we ask them to do something, they will do it if there’s a reason,” says Erb.

Encouraging students and staff to promptly report malfunctioning equipment has helped UW-Superior’s conservation efforts. “Take a drippy faucet, for example. How many gallons of water does that waste per day? We encourage people using campus emails to call and let us know if they see drippy faucets, open vestibule doors, or worn weather stripping. Then we can conserve energy by fixing those problems,” says Tom, Fennessey, director of facilities management at University of Wisconsin-Superior.

The University of Florida uses a comprehensive method of encouraging sustainable behavior called community based social marketing (CBSM), developed by Fostering Sustainable Behavior author Doug McKenzie-Mohr. CBSM provides a systematic approach for combining initial research to learn the actual barriers, overcoming those barriers, education and promotion of the desired behavior, and celebrating that behavior when it occurs. All of these components contribute to the success of a particular campaign.

But these education programs can be tougher than they look. “A lot of people engaged in sustainability think they know all the answers to why people aren’t doing something, and those assumptions can be wrong. You have to take the time to understand the real reason why people aren’t doing it,” says Dedee DeLongpre Johnston, director of the office of sustainability at the University of Florida (UF).

Last year, the office of sustainability at UF conducted a successful campaign called “One Less Car” in which people were encouraged to use alternatives to single occupancy vehicles to get to campus. “First we surveyed our faculty, staff and students to find out what their perceived barriers were to changing from a single occupancy travel vehicle to riding the bus, joining a carpool, bicycling or walking,” says DeLongpre Johnston.

The primary barriers were the “yuck” factor for bicycling and the occasional need for a car to run errands or attend a meeting during the day.

“We developed a biker’s essentials kit,” says DeLongpre Johnston. “We gave people committed to bicycling a little drawstring pouch with the One Less Car slogan, containing a hairbrush, deodorant, face wipes and a shower cap for their bicycle seat in case it was raining. When you get to your meeting, you stop by the restroom to do a quick freshen up. The kit helps get past the barrier.” To allow carpoolers or bus riders to get their occasional midday errands done, UF joined the Zipcar program, which allows people to use a fleet of cars on campus as needed.

People signed online pledges to use alternative transportation and logged their miles throughout the campaign. UF held an alternative transportation celebration at the end complete with T-shirts and burritos to further encourage students, staff and faculty to keep using alternative transportation. UF plans to repeat this campaign every fall. “Our goal is to continue to get more people to change their behavior while continuing to support those people who have changed to the more sustainable behavior,” says DeLongpre Johnston.

Published: April 14, 2009