A guest blog by up-and-coming mover and shaker Wendy Lee, whom I recently met for the first time over coffee at the Salt Lake Roasting Company. This woman is going to create change in our community, one heart at a time. Thank you Wendy!
The field of sustainability has enjoyed many improvements over the past few decades with government subsidies creating more accessibility into markets, progress in technologies that provide viable alternatives, and social corporate responsibility becoming a marketable trend. Still, anyone who works in sustainability, especially when it comes to conservation and efficiency, (the most cost-effective method to achieving our environmental goals) knows that one of the hardest things to do is influence behavior. Instead of throwing that aluminum can in the black bin, why not throw it in the blue bin, the one that’s two inches away? It’s surprising how this seemingly simple behavioral switch is one of the most difficult barriers to our sanitation problem.
It seems so logical. We have a waste problem — one that directly impacts our environment and our City resources, with a proven solution that’s been used for decades. All it takes is simply to throw your cans away in a different bin. Educational campaigns galore have been launched to help people accomplish this task. These campaigns go from “this is how you become a recycling rockstar” to “did you know that recycling aluminum saves more than 90 percent of the energy needed to make new aluminum?” Despite this irresistible advertisement and startling statistic, behavioral change is hard to come by.
The truth is that change — even something as simple as throwing a can in the bin two inches away — needs to have emotional value. Even for a professional working in the field of sustainability, such as myself, it’s a struggle to consistently make decisions I know are best. Cognitive scientists are continuing to explore the mechanisms behind this behavior that the marketing industry has known all along. Emotion sells. I’m not suggesting using manipulative tactics but rather connecting people’s core values to solutions.
This happened for me when I started spending more time beyond the city walls — in the great mountains of Utah with my K9 search and rescue group, and in my own explorations. After a while, the days and hours I spent training, hiking, backpacking, sweating, and struggling began to mean something to me. This time became important. It was a gradual process that began to connect the “environment” with my daily actions as a consumer on this planet. Throwing the can in the blue bin began to be associated with summiting King’s Peak and after-work hikes in Millcreek Canyon rather than a social obligation.
Though I can identify this connection now, it was not a conscious choice nor a deliberate one at the time — although my line of work allows for me to ponder these issues. It needed to happen somewhat organically. As a Los Angeles native, no amount of cajoling could have gotten me to put my body through strenuously long hikes in mosquito ridden forests for the “learning process” or the “good of the environment.” I needed an entry point, a community, and my own reasons for creating these experiences. Our country offers ample access points through our public lands, incredible diverse geography, and national parks. Social media makes it easier than ever to find a community; whether that’s sight-seeing in the Grand Canyon or taking a walk through your local park. All we need now is to find our reasons and I believe there truly an impetus for all of us to begin exploring the environment around us.
Our nation enjoys unprecedented high standards of living, healthcare, life expectancy and longevity, and yet we suffer from an all-time high in anxiety, depression, and deficiency in mental wellbeing. Kinde’s work shows the beneficial effects of healing and transforming ourselves in spaces not constructed by our own species but ones where humans are part of the ecology. Unsurprisingly it’s not just beneficial for the individual, it’s beneficial for the world and it’s how we’re going to start using that blue bin more.
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Wendy Lee works in Salt Lake City’s Department of Sustainability looking for ways to improve energy efficiency in commercial buildings. She has degrees in engineering and has found ways to apply her problem-solving skills not just with machines but with people. In her free time you’ll find her roaming the mountains with her canine, Tyke. She hopes that her next adventure will take her to help others create their own stories of outdoor exploration.