Small study engenders big changes

(Edmonton) One small study asking one faculty to make a few small environmentally friendly changes has had a big impact across campus.
Spearheaded by Debra Davidson, a professor cross-appointed by the departments of resource economics and environmental sociology and renewable resources, the experiment led to the implementation of campus-wide efforts to curb paper consumption.

“We did a pilot study with the School of Public Health here at the U of A,” Davidson said. “We asked them to simply try a few behavioural changes.”
From the fall term of 2008 to April 2009, they encouraged those in the faculty to be more conscious of their printing habits, and promoted double-sided printing and reusing single-sided paper.

“We found that there’s a lot of low-hanging fruit in the area of reducing paper consumption,” Davidson said, noting that many people were willing to take a bit of extra effort to help the cause.

The study was initiated through graduate students who made up the Campus Sustainability Coalition, a student group that advocates for environmentally friendly practices on campus. With the help of Davidson, they entered a competition by TD Canada Trust called the “Go Green Challenge,” which looked for campus sustainability initiatives. The group won a $25,000 grant, which was later matched by the Office of the Vice-President (Facilities and Operations).

“This was just a concrete opportunity for us to pursue what were previously just vague common interests,” Davidson said.

After the study, Davidson reported that the School of Public Health managed to reduce their ecological footprint by 23 per cent, and that they received a lot of positive feedback from the participants.

“They expressed that just bringing the awareness to their daily work routine was really helpful,” she said. The researchers used “visual motivational prompts” placed around offices to inform people on the environmental effects of high paper consumption, as well as simple instructions on how to set their computers to print on both sides of the paper as a default setting.

Davidson said that those responsible for more of the paper use felt that they didn’t have much discretion in their printing habits, which were “pretty much mandated by their superiors.” Another area of demanding printer use was in recordkeeping, which makes up a large part of regular paper consumption.

“Even though we have all sorts of capacity for digital storage of all kinds of information, there’s still a very strong belief among many that digital storage is risky, and we need hard copies of records,” Davidson explained.