Can We Inform Students and Affect Their Effort to be More Sustainable?

(This blog post is courtesy of a student-group in the Fall 2013 Honors Seminar 201)

 It is not uncommon to come across a sustainability related event or story happening at UIC. Yet, there is always room for improvement. The key demographic for minor improvements in results lies with the large student body. The question is, how do you get them involved?
We set out to study whether publicly displaying information regarding UIC’s current efforts to be sustainable would affect students’ behavior or opinions. Would they be more considerate of unnecessary power usage? Recycling? Would signs cause students to slightly change their behavior in a way that would successfully spread sustainability efforts?
We chose to focus on Lincoln Hall (one of UIC’s LEED Certified building) as our model of sustainability at UIC.  The plan was simple, inform the students about sustainability in Lincoln Hall and later ask them if they felt in any way more inclined to participate in the sustainability movement.
Water and Lincoln Hall
The average American uses 100 gallons of water per day, but a person only needs 1 gallon a day to survive. When it comes to the bathroom, 27 of the 100 gallons come from flushing the toilet, with 3.5-7 gallons per flush on older toilets. The low flow toilets at UIC only use 1 to 1.6 gallons per flush, cutting down on the amount of water used. This information, along with the complete breakdown of the average American’s water usage, is found on the Environmental Protection Agency’s website (http://www.epa.gov/WaterSense/pubs/indoor.html).
Nearly every student at UIC notices the huge difference with Lincoln, Douglas, and Grant Hall compared to the other buildings on campus, not many actually know how much greener these buildings are though. Most do not even realize that these buildings are LEED certified. The purpose of the poster that presented the above information regarding water was mainly not to get students to cut down on the water usage, but instead to get students to realize that UIC is making a huge effort to become more sustainable and “greener.”
Recycling at UIC
Perhaps the most effortless way a student can contribute to UIC’s sustainability effort is by recycling effectively. UIC provides the means to recycle by having separate bins for trash and recyclables.  Over the last decade the recycling rate at the university has doubled and the amount of recycled material overall has increased year to year; however, there is still room for improvement. In every building there are separate bins for trash and recyclables, the goal is to maximize the efficiency of this system. By creating signs that inform students of the benefits of recycling, as well as showing UIC’s current efforts, we hope to appeal to their conscience and create a behavioral change that would hopefully become permanent. In theory, it seems a student would be more inclined to take an extra step to recycle if they are aware that others are partaking in the effort that ultimately benefits the community.
Urea-formaldehyde-free Lincoln Hall
Urea-formaldehyde is used commercially as insulation for homes and many basements. They were used drastically in the 1970’s in the United States. They were great for conserving energy especially heating in the colder climates. The danger comes from the breaking down of the material over time, which it emits a formaldehyde vapor. This vapor has health effects on the eyes, nose, and the respiratory system.
Modern construction techniques have started using replacement materials including melamine formaldehyde resin and polyurethane. While these materials have been proven to have less of a negative affect on the people’s health, they aren’t completely safe. Lincoln Hall’s composite wood and agrifiber use no urea-formaldehyde. This has helped the building achieve the LEED citification and has also has guaranteed that the building will be safe for people for many years to come.
Solar Energy and Lincoln Hall
The sun is an amazing resource when it comes to energy. For as long as we will be living the sun will be giving us what is essentially free energy, as long as we can harness it. Solar energy is a great alternate energy source, because not only is it not going to run out for billions of years, it is completely clean energy. It is amazing to see that the University of Illinois at Chicago is making such a great example by integrating solar power in its energy supply. Solar panels on Lincoln Hall have produced 249 megawatt hours to date. This is enough to power 24,900 homes for a year. This is also the equivalent of saving 4,497 trees. Not only is UIC producing clean energy and decreasing CO2 emissions that would have otherwise been produced from energy that comes from a power plant, It is actually saving them money, roughly $6,500 a year.
Conclusion
While we only hung posters in Lincoln Hall, we did see results indicating that people were in fact seeing our posters. Not only were people seeing our posters, but also almost half of the survey responders saw the posters and believed they were successful in their purpose. The ultimate goal was to inform students and create changes in their behavior to increase sustainability. In the span of time in which the project ran we determined that our posters were distributing information, but we lack the time to determine their effects on the behavior of students overall. Some made the choice to use less water at the sink, some recycled when they otherwise would have not, but ultimately we cannot conclude with certainty that the posters will permanently change behavior. The effects of the posters could be more positive over time, however, repeated exposure might change the outcome in a positive manner. Ultimately, any improvement and increase in awareness is a win, and although the success in behavior change is inconclusive, it is certain that the posters are effective in introducing students to sustainable efforts on campus.