Cover Story

When Shawn M. Burn, PhD, wanted to study recycling practices in her Claremont, Calif., neighborhood, she enlisted the help of unlikely research assistants: Boy Scouts.

Using what she calls "indigenous personnel" was just one of the strategies Burn employed to encourage curbside recycling in her community. The boys were charged with different assignments: in some blocks, they distributed flyers listing the incentives for recycling that lab research had found persuasive: a mild fear component, suggestions for specific actions and information about the community's social norms. In other blocks, the scouts asked people to sign statements of support for the city's recycling program. Some blocks got both approaches.

In a subsequent project, Burn transformed diligent recyclers into "block leaders" who helped create a social norm by encouraging nonrecycling neighbors to participate in the city's recycling program.

Both interventions increased recycling by 40 to 50 percent, with improvements sustained over months-long surveillance of the recycling bins outside people's houses. "These studies involved giving psychology away," says Burn, now a psychology professor at California Polytechnic University in San Luis Obispo. "I tried to design interventions that were practical enough for municipalities to use on their own without supervision by a psychologist."

Environmentally minded psychologists like Burn are involved in a variety of projects designed to apply their research findings in their own neighborhoods. Here are a few examples of the work they're doing.

Developing programs

Using techniques similar to Burn's, Canadian psychologist Doug McKenzie-Mohr, PhD, piloted a program to reduce engine idling as people dropped family members off at schools and mass transit stops in Toronto. At some sites, he posted signs reminding people to turn their engines off; at other sites, he posted signs, asked drivers to sign a no-idling pledge and gave them a sticker for their windshields.

When compared with a control group, people who got the triple approach reduced idling incidents by a third and idling time by 75 percent.

"The stickers reminded people to take the action, served as a public sign of their pledge to turn their engines off and helped develop social norms," says McKenzie-Mohr, a psychology professor at St. Thomas University in Fredericton, New Brunswick. "It's a very pragmatic approach."

Facilitating discussion

Deborah DuNann Winter, PhD, a psychology professor at Whitman College in Walla Walla, Wash., is lending her expertise to a local group called the Watershed Planning Council.

"Here in the West, people have been at war over resources," says Winter. "The rhetoric has been very hostile, and litigation in the courts has been a horrifically costly, slow and ineffective way to settle disputes."

At the group's monthly meetings, Winter uses her skills in conflict resolution and group processes to ensure that the many factions represented communicate, collaborate and come to consensus as they discuss plans for protecting their community's watershed.

"Global efforts are valid, but I believe that real and lasting changes will only happen at the local level, with face-to-face contact between people who get to know and respect each other," she says.

Evaluating effectiveness

What messages are children taking away from zoos, animal parks and aquariums? P. Wesley Schultz, PhD, an associate professor of psychology at California State University in San Marcos, is exploring that question. Right now he's evaluating an innovative program in which fourth- and fifth-graders spend a year going to school in classrooms at the San Diego Wild Animal Park, where the school district's regular curriculum gets an environmental twist.

"What we find is that teaching kids about environmental issues increases their knowledge but doesn't increase their concern about these issues or promote conservation behavior," he reports.

Now Schultz and his students are looking for ways to put what they've found to work improving the education aimed at park visitors.

Surveying needs

When Lynnette C. Zelezny, PhD, did a meta-analysis on encouraging eco-friendly behavior, she discovered that programs that were long-term and targeted to children worked best. But before she set out to put her findings into action, she wanted to hear educators' thoughts.

"Our idea is to know as much as possible about the needs of California's school districts before we design environmental education programs," says Zelezny, an assistant professor of psychology at California State University in Fresno.

A survey of curriculum directors in school districts revealed a high level of interest in environmental education but also concern about squeezing it into an already jam-packed curriculum. Zelezny's eventual goal? To establish a clearinghouse of information about environmental education.

Rebecca A. Clay is a writer in Washington, D.C.