Connections: Good Habits

Sally Brown

Sally Brown
BioCycle July 2014, Vol. 55, No. 6, p. 53

Behavior change is what our field is all about. We want people to remember to source separate. We want people to use compost instead of fertilizer. Unless people and the municipalities where they live agree to do this, we are out of business (except for the segment who deals with flushing, we will always flush). To those of us that have been doing this for years, it is simple and no longer requires any thought. However, for those who have not yet done it for a day, let alone a week, it can seem like an incredible hurdle and not even worth the bother. It is only once those new habits are ingrained that people look back on the way that they used to do things and wonder what took them so long to change. Getting people to change how they do things is critical. Getting people to change how they do things is really hard.

Let me tell you a story about my own personal battle with change. This has to do with riding my bicycle. I swim for exercise several times a week. I swim on a Masters team (grown up swim team with coaches). The key point here is that I swim for exercise.

For the last nine years, I have driven to and from practice. This is despite the fact that it is two miles from my home and that there is a bike trail right next to my house that goes right past the pool. Over the years I have periodically considered biking instead of driving. The range of excuses that I made to stick with driving was pretty impressive and included the extra effort involved with biking compared to driving. I am blushing as I write this.

Finally this summer, seeing a guy from a faster lane get ready to run home after practice while I was getting into my car did it. I said “you’re really ambitious” and he said that he only lived 1.5 miles from the pool. I kept my mouth shut but for the next practice put on my bike helmet and peddled to the pool. I survived. I was still able to swim. I got more exercise. Plus I got to smell the mock orange in blossom from the trail and I saved the $5 for parking. I’ve been biking to swim ever since.

I am not alone in this aversion to change. Anne, a friend who is younger and much stronger than I am, started biking to work only after a mutual friend died of cancer. She started riding in the rain in the Seattle winter as a way to raise money for a memorial garden. In the process she also discovered that it was really not such a big deal. Now she rides to work everyday. She has even made a spreadsheet to calculate how much CO2; she’s saved, how many calories she has burned, and how much money she has saved by riding instead of buying gas and paying for parking.

Anne posted her stats on her Facebook page and got 44 likes and 22 comments — and maybe another person or two to try it. To me, it is a really inspirational tool to help you get out the bike, get on the bus or even consider walking where you are going. I know at least one person who reads this column who could easily walk to work. This might just be the inspiration to get that to happen.

Good Organics Management Habits

For residuals management, we need inspiration too. We have to help bridge the distance from where we are to where we want to be. That may mean plenty of outreach on multiple levels. It also means walking the walk and not just talking the talk. Don’t just compost professionally — use your products in your own garden so your neighbors can see. Donate compost to your kids’ schools and offer to help set up some gardens there. When the plants start going crazy let them know why and how theirs can look like that too.

Getting people to change their behaviors is a critical component of the battle against climate change. For this magazine, much of that battle centers on residuals management. However, beyond the immediate purview of BioCycle, it extends to things like changing from lawns to landscapes, from beef to beans, and from cars to bikes or buses. It is not only individuals who need to change; municipalities also have to realize that allowing for changes to take place won’t lead to chaos, revolution or a public health crisis.

In many cases, these changes are related. Get someone interested in cooking and eating well, and you’ll get them interested in growing their own food. Once they are interested in growing food, they’ll start being aware of soil and water. Soon the connection between waste and soil will become clear. You’ll have a composter or at least someone who is aware that separating their food waste ends up giving them something to help their soil. They may even remember to take those stickers off of the fruit.

They also might start to realize after watering their garden that the grey water from their washer could also do the trick. If a neighbor is already doing these things, those changes will come more easily and to a greater number of people. In many cases, these same people will start pressuring their municipalities to institutionalize change. That has helped to change laws to support urban agriculture in Boston and Portland. Bottom up pressure helped liberalize the regulations on grey water use in California. Bottom up pressure can strengthen your business.

What is critical to capture and promote is how empowering these changes can be. Watching the light bulb go off has been revelatory even for me — a supposed professional who should have known better. Tools like Anne’s spreadsheet can help. Work on a community level can help too. Patience is a terrific asset as is repetition. Also important is the realization that there is always another step to take. My story again here. I now bike to swim and to work but have not quite convinced myself to bike to yoga (3 miles each way and a big hill). I’ll try it if you promise to consider it too.

Sally Brown is a Research Associate Professor at the University of Washington in Seattle and a member of BioCycle’s Editorial Board.

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