Ask Umbra: Are these sorority sisters beyond help?
Send your question to Umbra!
Q. Dear Umbra,
I am a waste reduction specialist and recently got a call from a local university sorority house mother. She asked if I had a video that would “convince these girls that they should care about recycling!” I told her I did not know of that magic video — it is usually a personal commitment or peer pressure that make people change behavior, coupled with convenience. I offered to come speak to the scoffers myself, but if there is a whizbang video out there that turns a waster into a recycler I would like to know about it.
Chapel Hill, N.C.
A. Dearest Muriel,
Here I was, merrily thinking we needn’t worry about convincing The Young People to recycle. After all, recycling has become a regular part of life in most American households over the past few decades, a.k.a. a college student’s lifetime. I thought the challenge was getting people to care about things like climate change and economic models, not getting them to toss their beer cans into the right bin.
Of course, there are studies that suggest millennials recycle less and care less about the environment than previous generations. And it does appear that many fraternities and sororities are behind the green curve. I spoke with Leith Sharp, a higher-ed sustainability consultant based at Harvard, who says that’s primarily because of the autonomy social houses enjoy. With operations and events run separately from the college or university mothership, it can be hard to get an effective recycling system up and running.
That’s not to say it can’t be done. In fact, many schools have launched programs intended to “green the Greeks” within the last year or two, including UC-Berkeley, Tufts, Penn, UVA, and the University of Georgia. Perhaps those examples will provide some inspiration for your harried house mother.
It’s worth noting that in each of those cases, it was students who took the lead. Indeed, Sharp says finding students to champion the cause is key — especially those who don’t fit the traditional green-leaning mold. That’s because, she notes, campus recycling has become politicized over the last few years, to the point where it is dismissed by some students as a “left-wing” activity.
So how can we make recycling more broadly appealing? You’re right that peer modeling and convenience are key. I would add one other item to your list: incentives. Turns out people care a lot more about recycling (and many other things) if they get something out of it. Even better if competition is involved. Maybe the floor that recycles the most in this sorority gets free pizza, or the house that recycles the most on campus gets extra funding for a party, or some other reward its members find appealing (perhaps T-shirts for all!) Or they could take things bigger and compete in RecycleMania, a national competition that pits college campuses against one another — more than 600 at last count.
As it happens, part of the RecycleMania mania is the creation of student videos. Most of which are … well, perhaps not what you’re after. In fact, after spending quite a bit of time wading through mostly very earnest videos all over the YouTubes on your behalf, I’d say the options are limited (no doubt when Grist’s documentary I, Party Cup is released, that will be the go-to choice). However! I did find two videos that might be well suited for the sorority crowd: In the first (below), a female student on a Hawaiian beach displays and describes the horrifying (but oddly beautiful) plastic waste salvaged from albatross corpses, including toothbrushes, toys, and golf balls. In the second, a sorority member from Michigan State University explains how and why she got recycling started in her house.
I hope this helps, Muriel. And I hope we all remember that recycling is a common-sense act, and one we should undertake even when we expect no reward — you never know, a flash mob could be waiting.