How hard is it to rinse out recyclables before tossing
them in the recycling bin? Or more so, how difficult is it to put unrecyclable
items in the
garbage and recyclable items in the recycling bin? I am constantly amazed
how often I see these transgressions not only in public places but in
the offices of several animal protection groups where I have worked.
Is it laziness, ignorance, or both? It touches upon a general dilemma
with activists and other caring people: extending our awareness to where
we can see the big picture. Helping our environment is as important as
helping the human and nonhuman animals who live in it.
A lot of caring people say to me “I’m just one person, what difference
will I make?” I can’t help but reply that so many people say this
to me and, obviously, if everyone says this, nothing will change. I point out
that each person is integral to forming a whole: if each person did their part,
then the effort of the group will make a difference. And in fact, single actions
can be quantified. For example, the amount of energy saved by recycling one aluminum
can be used to power an electrical appliance for several hours.
In most of my workplaces, I have been the one to pick out the recyclables from
the garbage cans and the unrecyclables from the recycling bins. I default to
the attitude that if you want a job done right, you have to do it yourself. This
gives me contentment but also some resentment—why should I have all this
extra work to do? Recycling my own stuff just takes a minute, but recycling everyone
else’s can add quite a few more minutes, depending on the size of the office.
How can we get people to think of recycling as a minor daily chore, just like
brushing their teeth? At some point, most people learned to throw garbage in
a can rather than on the ground. How hard is it to learn to take that extra step
I’ve also learned that attitudes toward city recycling programs can impede
participation. In Chicago, many people have told me they think that all the recycling
gets dumped into the landfill anyway. A study at Northwestern University compared
the recycling programs of different cities, and although it found Chicago to
be the worst (and San Francisco the best), the study showed that the Chicago
program was still better than not recycling at all. Those who would recycle if
they weren’t so pessimistic are actually turning their doom into a self-fulfilling
prophecy: by not recycling, people are making the program not work.
Learning Theory in the Workplace
As an experimental psychologist who now studies applied animal behavior, my background
is in learning theory. Since the principles of learning can be applied to both
human and nonhuman animals, I realize they can help me further my activism in
the workplace. One way humans and great apes learn is through modeling: one individual
performs an action and others watch, then imitate with various degrees of precision.
If you are like me, and go through the garbage looking for recyclables, be sure
to do it when other people are watching so they can see what type of items you’re
retrieving and where you put them. Adding a comment like, “If I recycle
this plastic bottle, I prevent it from sitting in a landfill for 1,000 years
before it degrades” may help them understand one reason why recycling is
important and may break them from the “out of sight, out of mind” mentality.
A simpler way of learning that all species, including humans, do is through positive
reinforcement—giving a reward when an individual performs a certain behavior.
One way to teach people how to recycle is by putting them through the motions:
carry the recycling bins to different desks in the office and ask people to put
their recycling in them. After they do, reinforce them by thanking them effusively.
Repeat this several times, then watch to see if they start doing it on their
Learning theory can be applied to other types of activism in the work place too.
I’ve worked in animal shelters, wild animal sanctuaries, zoos, and with
primate researchers. Usually, I am the only vegetarian on staff. Why is it that
those who work to save some animals support an industry that causes so much suffering
to other animals? And why do I feel uncomfortable pointing this out to people?
Diet issues are more personal than recycling. So many people in the U.S. have
addictions to food—just look at the soaring rate of obesity. A vegetarian
diet is healthier, helps save the planet’s resources, and prevents animal
suffering. Modeling and positive reinforcement may help here, too. Luckily, a
lot of people like to ask me about what I eat. They seem to think I must cook
a lot from scratch and tell me that they don’t have time to cook much.
When I tell them that I don’t have a lot of time to cook either and that
I eat easy-to-prepare food with lots of faux-meat products found in regular grocery
stores, they are always surprised. Since I usually try to bring my lunch with
me, I often bring a little extra and have co-workers try it. They are always
impressed by the taste and their delight is self-reinforcing. Of course, if there’s
an occasion at work where there’s a lunch or dinner, be sure they order
enough of the vegetarian entrée for several people. Often, you’ll
find that it’s more popular than the meat entrée!
You can also help effect change by influencing the products used in your office.
It’s easy to find toilet paper and paper towels made from recycled paper
and cruelty-free, biodegradable hand soaps, dish soaps, and air fresheners. You
may need to provide the office manager with some online discount sources. Also,
get rid of the paper plates and cups and replace them with some non-disposable
Working in an office with other people affords the opportunity to model environmentally
and animal friendly behavior on a daily basis. The key is to recognize and take
advantage of these opportunities to educate and widen people’s circle of
Valerie Chalcraft, Ph.D., is an animal advocate and experimental psychologist
who is currently working in the field of applied companion animal behavior.
to Green Your Office
For me, there really isn’t a more powerful mantra for inspiration
than Gandhi’s “You have to be the change you want to see in
the world.” Although often bombarded with very grim realities of
the impact humans have on our planet, many of us have found a huge sense
of empowerment in making changes in our lives and our homes that reflect
the world we want to live in. From a veggie diet to cruelty-free shopping
to waste minimization and fair labor consumerism, we employ tools of
But for many of us, our work environments may not necessarily live up
to the standards we’ve set for our homes and lives. And while trying to do our
individual part to be more eco-friendly in the workplace, we’re overwhelmed
by the sheer amount of waste produced and the amount of resources required
to engage in daily business operations. While some of these practices are viewed
as necessary evils, there is a trend toward greening the workplace and a growing
realization that eco-friendly practices can be economical too. A small list
tips to improve office practices is provided below. Some of these are tips
for the individual, but many may require discussions with office managers,
crews and executives. While they may seem basic and banal, small changes can
make a huge difference. —S.I.
Save Paper—review files electronically, print on used paper or print double
sided, purchase post-consumer recycled paper products, and reuse discarded
paper as note or scrap paper.
Greener Commute—encourage public transit, enroll employees in transit and
commuter check programs, organize office carpools or shuttles to train stations,
encourage work from home and flexible worker schedules, offer bicycle parking,
use low emissions vehicles such as hybrids as company cars.
Offset Your Impact—look into carbon neutral programs to offset emissions
from business operations and air travel.
Save Energy—opt for Energy Star compliant copiers, fax machines, computers
and monitors. Screen savers don’t save energy!
Lighting—replace incandescent bulbs with compact fluorescents, turn off
lights when not in use, and install occupancy sensors.
Buy Local and Organic—support local vendors and supply company catered
lunches with local organic foods.
Green Supplies—purchase cruelty-free, eco-friendly, non-toxic cleaners,
soaps and inks, and buy in bulk.
Eco-friendly Kitchens—eliminate disposables. Encourage permanent mugs and
use permanent utensils and plates for daily meals and office party celebrations.
Donate—give away or exchange unwanted items like furniture, electronics,
scrap materials, computers, etc.
Recycle—implement a company wide comprehensive recycling program. Key to
success is making recycling easy and convenient and effectively educating staff
and maintenance crews.
Coffee—have some fair trade, shade grown, organic coffee to go with those
Go Sweat Shop Free—whether you are on a corporate softball league or sell
message gear, buy fair labor wear.
Community Calendar—organize events like tree planting, community beach
cleanups, or film screenings of socially conscious movies.
Veggie Voice—bring in who’d a thunk it vegan goodies and spread the
message through tasty treats.
Desktop Advocacy—whether it be photos of your rescued dog, an ad for the
animal-free circus heading to your town, or a copy of your favorite Satya,
your desk can be a place to educate your co-workers about the many issues of
Environmentally and socially responsible consumerism: www.coopamerica.org
Green business resources: www.greenbiz.com
Carbon neutral programs: www.futureforests.com and www.carbonfund.org
Local organic food: www.localharvest.org
Energy saving equipment: www.energystar.gov
Donate and received used items: www.freecycle.org