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April 2005
Widening the Circle Through Example
By Valerie Chalcraft

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 to recycle?

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 own.

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 ones.

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 compassion.

Valerie Chalcraft, Ph.D., is an animal advocate and experimental psychologist who is currently working in the field of applied companion animal behavior.




Simple Ways 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 change.

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 of tips to improve office practices is provided below. Some of these are tips for the individual, but many may require discussions with office managers, maintenance 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.

Beyond Green
• Coffee—have some fair trade, shade grown, organic coffee to go with those permanent mugs.

• 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 concern to you.

Additional Resources
Environmentally and socially responsible consumerism:
Green business resources:
Carbon neutral programs: and
Local organic food:
Energy saving equipment:
Donate and received used items:



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