The Atlas logo, which is a dark blue telescope with the base shaped like an arrowhead that creates the “A” in the word Atlas. Text reads “Hot Take Number One” with a fire icon in the word Hot.

Introducing Atlas Hot Takes – findings and theories that make up the foundation of the Atlas project. You can read the first unofficial installment here.

Our years of working with campuses of every size and setting across the U.S. illuminated a few common challenges that nearly all of them faced in their pursuit of zero waste. It led us to form several important conclusions that significantly influenced the development of PLAN’s Atlas program. In particular, we saw countless colleges and universities focusing their energy and resources on educating their student body on the importance of recycling and how to correctly sort their trash, but with no real improvements in diverting trash away from the landfill or decreased contamination rates. Why was this the case?

Our big takeaway was that education was ineffective in changing students’ habits because existing systems did not facilitate behavior change. If the administration wanted to see their students and other campus users better manage and reduce their waste, infrastructure was the first thing that needed to change. Max Liboiron also reported similar takeaways from their research on bottled water consumption versus tap water consumption on NYU’s campus.  

Infrastructure for zero waste includes the policies, programs, processes, and organizational and communication structures that support waste reduction. Behavioral psychology informs the way that most effective infrastructure is designed – we take the most important points from Erez Yoeli’s talk on “How to Motivate People to Do Good…”

Person standing on a stage giving a TEDx presentation.

1. Increase observability.

This point goes two ways. First, Yoeli argues that social pressure is powerful – for example, if waste stations are placed in heavily trafficked areas where everyone can see you walk up to the waste station and then silently judge you for placing your recyclable soda can into the trash stream, it’s way more likely that you’ll take a second moment to sort your trash correctly. Secondly, good program marketing is key – if people don’t know about the spring electronics recycling drive or the reuse store located in the basement of the student union, they’re definitely not going to be using it.

2. Eliminate excuses.

Common sense says that when faced with several options, people will go with what is easiest and most convenient. Take this example – getting your coffee to-go in a reusable container. It produces way less waste, yet the regular, non-environmentalist probably won’t choose it for a thousand different reasons that immediately spring to mind – I don’t have time to sit down for a coffee in the morning. My bag gets too heavy/full having to carry around my reusable thermos all day. I always forget to grab it when I leave the house. It’s annoying to have to remember to wash my thermos so I can use it again the next day. This one cafe on campus doesn’t accept it. And so on. But what if there was a universal, reusable mug program at your school that allowed you to pick up and drop off a mug at any cafe across campus? What if disposable coffee cups weren’t even an option? Design systems that eliminate any excuses for not choosing the more environmentally responsible option.

3. Communicate expectations.

Policy is a great tool for communicating expectations and streamlining systems, whether it be through the establishment of environmentally preferable purchasing policies, a sustainable dining policy, or disposal procedures for hard-to-recycle materials. When words are not enough to inspire behavior change, consequences for non-compliance should be communicated just as clearly. Standardization of systems also helps eliminate confusion – for example, in the all-important area of waste collection infrastructure. Below is a great example of a waste station from UC Berkeley that is color-coded according to campus and city guidelines, features standardized signage outlining where each material type should go, and displays a clearly stated goal of reaching zero waste by 2020 (text at top left corner of signage).

Source: Fairware

PLAN has been working for the last few years to build a new benchmarking tool that will allow institutions to establish a holistic understanding of their zero waste system – following the zero waste hierarchy for all materials handled. The Atlas Zero Waste framework is unique because it can be customized to each campus/institution, and it provides a scoring-based assessment on the existence of policies, infrastructure, logistics, communication, and standardization of collection strategies. You can learn more about Atlas here!