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An experiment in sustainability: Change habits, not infrastructure

April 19, 2017
By Carrie Spector
Picture of Niecolle Felix and John Nomis by Linda Cicero
John Nomis, right, coordinates sustainability efforts at the GSE. He is pictured with fellow staff member Niecolle Felix. (Photo: Linda A. Cicero/Stanford News Service)
In the first schoolwide program of its kind on campus, the Graduate School of Education is intentionally creating a culture of conservation.

One morning last year, staff at the Graduate School of Education (GSE) showed up at work to find that all of their wastebaskets had disappeared overnight.

Every deskside trash bin had been confiscated. In its place: a blue recycling container – with a small pocket labeled “landfill only” hooked to the rim.

“There was some grumbling at first,” recalled John Nomis, GSE facilities and sustainability coordinator. “But most people adapted to it pretty well after a couple of weeks.”

That late-night operation was the launch of the Green GSE Initiative, the first large-scale partnership at Stanford between one of its seven schools and the Office of Sustainability to foster a schoolwide culture of conservation. Instead of focusing on infrastructure, this collaboration was aimed at getting GSE staff and faculty more routinely involved in everyday activities like recycling and composting.

This might sound quaint for a place like Stanford, where new buildings incorporate state-of-the-art technology for heating, cooling and water management on a campus that boasts one of the most efficient energy supply systems in the world.

But Stanford is also home to many historic facilities, and the main School of Education building is one of them. The 1938 edifice on Lasuen Mall – which houses the GSE dean’s office, central operations staff, dozens of classrooms, Cubberley Auditorium and the library – is nearly as old as the school itself, which celebrates its 100th anniversary this year.

Major renovations to create more efficient plumbing, heating or lighting on a historic building are complicated, delicate and often prohibitively expensive. Projects like retrofitting for earthquake safety are a higher priority.

That’s why, when GSE joined with the Office of Sustainability to develop a schoolwide program, it seemed like the perfect opportunity to test and model a different approach – one that targeted social norms instead of infrastructure.

Getting started

No school on campus had partnered with the university for a comprehensive waste reduction program like this before. GSE offered some critical advantages for such an experiment: strong champions on staff, buy-in from the top and a population that was small enough to be relatively cohesive but large enough to serve as an example for other schools.

“The plan was to get three or four things we could do initially that could have an effect, and get the community excited about them,” said Priscilla Fiden, associate dean for administration at the GSE, who spearheaded the initiative on the school’s end along with Nomis. “Then we’d measure the results and think about how we could keep moving the needle.”

It’s not easy to get hundreds of people to form new habits at once. But the payoff can be significant – in ways they might not expect.

Fahmida Ahmed, director of the Office of Sustainability, said that behavioral programs like the Green GSE Initiative – which depend on participation from the entire community – can help instill a stronger connection to the school.

“At the building level, where infrastructure is concerned, you’ve got a few people making the decisions,” Ahmed said. “But everyone has to make their own individual choices for a behavioral program to be successful. That has a tremendous cultural impact on people’s sense of place and their sense of empowerment.”

Changing habits

For most of us, new habits come more readily with a change in our surroundings – anything that makes a desired behavior more accessible and appealing, or deters us from the habit we’re trying to shed. So the Green GSE Initiative began with modifications around the office that would make it not only easy to conserve, but also inconvenient – even socially unacceptable – to be wasteful.

Case in point: those deskside recycling containers. The school also implemented an extensive compost pickup program, with numerous outsized bins located throughout its buildings.

To curb the use of disposable plastics, the school adopted a policy against purchasing bottled water for events – an extremely rare stance on campus. Employees who organize events are guided toward eco-friendlier options, like large beverage dispensers with spigots and compostable cups.

All staff were also issued large GSE-branded ceramic mugs and sturdy water bottles, which have the added benefit of showcasing the school’s commitment beyond its own walls. It’s common to see employees with their GSE coffee mugs at events, meetings and the nearby Coupa Café.

A contingent participating in the annual Cardinal Walk around campus last year (in “Green GSE” T-shirts and drawstring backpacks) filled up their reusable bottles at the office beforehand instead of taking the throwaway bottles offered at the meeting point.

“I’ve been held accountable for walking around the office with a plastic bottle in my hand,” Fiden admitted. “But some amount of peer pressure is important.”

Keeping the momentum going

The university brought a customized training to GSE staff as the program kicked off, which helped build a common language and understanding among staff who share the same space, said Lauren Hennessy, outreach program manager for the Office of Sustainability.

“That way people can say later, ‘Remember that class? This goes in that bin.’ And we could speak to some of the nuances of the buildings themselves,” Hennessy said. “It was also an opportunity as they were rolling out the program to say, ‘This is something new we have going on, it’s a huge focus for us as a school and here’s how you can help it succeed.’”

It’s now been about a year since the late night trash bin raid, and Nomis is working with the Office of Sustainability to compile data on the school’s progress to share with staff. “The habits are there,” he said. But to keep the momentum going, “the extra push will be results they can feel proud of.”

GSE will continue to work with the university to expand the program and fine-tune the efforts already underway.

Meanwhile, said Nomis, some of the feedback from staff has taken him by surprise.

“A lot of people have come up to me to thank me, and to tell me their own ideas for what we can do,” he said. “I think they realized there was suddenly a venue for that. There are a lot of champions at GSE who really want this to keep going.”