Education and Awareness

The Education and Awareness subcommittee is prioritizing coordinated communication between all relevant waste management decision-makers in order for consistent communication to be planned and implemented by University stakeholders. A protocol will be put into place for all University units to follow prior to making any changes to waste management. Access to educational materials will be improved via development of a centralized website, which will be managed jointly by the Office of Physical Plant and the Sustainability Institute; a possible app; and improved online engagement. Sustainability initiatives will be branded through signage and organizational messaging to increase trust and transparency in waste management initiatives that should lead to increased involvement among constituents.

This subcommittee focused on effectively communicating Penn State initiatives regarding waste to various stakeholders (e.g., students, faculty, and staff, as well as visitors to campus and sporting events) via consistent but easily modifiable messaging. Without appropriate communication or messaging, efforts to reduce waste made by the University are unlikely to be successful. Individuals need to have, at a minimum, proper information about appropriate behavior (e.g., how to recycle and compost appropriately at Penn State campuses as well as education regarding benefits and programs to reuse water bottles, mugs, and food containers). However, information / education alone is not enough for a successful campus-wide waste reduction campaign as individuals also need to have the motivation to follow through (via removal of barriers to desired behavior and social norms). This necessary shift in behavior could be achieved through greater awareness and appropriate messaging that resonates with engaged individuals.

The recommendations below are supported by a Fall 2018 Pulse survey of 1,228 Penn State students, which found that 58 percent wanted more information on sustainable living, including recycling. Ninety-two percent either somewhat or strongly agreed that the University should pay attention to the impact of its actions on the environment, as it does on diversity and health issues. More recently, in a survey distributed University-wide following the Waste Stream Task Force Community Discussion, less than five percent of respondents (44 of 975) were completely satisfied with Penn State’s current waste management practices and 20% (197 of 975) reported some level of dissatisfaction with current practices. The survey received 975 completed responses, (31% students, 16% faculty, and 52% staff).

In the spring 2019 survey, of the 375 respondents that chose to leave open-ended comments, over 25% (96 of 375) left a comment pertaining to a request for better education to understand how to appropriately sort their waste. When asked specifically about information on appropriate sorting of waste, 76% indicated a desire for such information. Of these individuals, 31% (229 of 774) requested information via a Mobile App and 69% (521 of 744) requested information via a website, which would include responses to FAQs. Thus, additional educational efforts are needed that provide clear, comprehensive information that will make it easier to recycle.

Given that it is critical to move beyond increasing recycling rates to have meaningful behavior change, this survey also assessed reuse. Importantly, 87% of respondents agreed with the recommendation to reduce waste via reusable mugs, bottles, to-go containers, bags, etc. 62% selecting “strongly agree”). Moreover, 20% of respondents who left open-ended comments spontaneously mentioned the importance of increasing reusables with appropriate infrastructure and/or eliminating disposables.

Thus, there is a demand among students, faculty, and staff for both better communication and stronger initiatives regarding waste management.

Recommended goals and principles to impact Penn State’s waste stream:

Short term

  • Launch a new waste reduction campaign with a new, fresh brand
  • Motivate behavior change
  • Develop messaging and signage that is clear, fun, and easily modifiable as recycling and waste management information changes both over time as well as across campus locations with different facilities so that confusion regarding sorting is not a barrier to recycling and contamination rates.

Long term

  • Create a brand image around waste reduction that is recognized and respected by all stakeholders. When waste management concerns shift focus (for example there are changes in accepted recyclables or compostable material, or changes in materials procured, such as removing disposables and offering reusable bottles and mugs), this established brand will effectively communicate the appropriate updated information to constituents in a timely manner.
  • Develop infrastructure to support reusables so single-use materials can be eliminated. The necessary infrastructure would include dishwashers in eateries as well as mug/bottle- washing stations (e.g., constructing public-use sinks beyond those in restrooms) and adding more water-bottle filling stations. This long-term recommendation is supported by survey respondents as noted earlier (87% agreed with the recommendation to reduce waste via reusable mugs, bottles, to-go containers, bags, etc., with 62% indicating “strongly agree”). Moreover, 20% of respondents who left open-ended comments spontaneously mentioned the importance of increasing reusables with appropriate infrastructure and/or eliminating disposables.

Success will be measured several ways. First, after a campaign is conducted, we will use surveys and in-person interviews to assess general brand awareness among constituents as well as understanding of appropriate waste management practices. Additionally, we can assess actual reduction in waste following the campaign. Waste reduction success will be determined by greater recycling rates and less contamination in recycling bins (and thus fewer contamination fees from CCRRA), which will be assessed via waste audits. Following longer-term efforts to increase reusables and eliminate disposables, we can also assess reductions in total waste based on the University’s quantity of landfill waste. For example, eliminating the approximately 4 million disposable hot coffee cups that are sold at Penn State’s University Park campus each year, as well as the nearly 6 million disposable cold coffee and Pepsi cups sold on campus, would have a substantial decrease in Penn State’s post-consumer waste by removing over 10 million disposable cups from the landfill each year.



Elaborating on the short-term goals and how they will be met, a committee will be established to create a marketing campaign and the associated branding. The goal would be to develop consistent branding and messaging to reach different audiences, tailoring to location and group-specific issues. The design should be such that it can be relatively easily modified as changes occur (e.g., recycling supply and demand, materials purchased/sold on campus).

Two quotes obtained for the branding campaign ranged from $4,000 to $4,520. Both companies’ quotes include a brand book: color scheme, fonts, a few tag lines, and bin signage redesign based on SI and OPP research and prototypes. When taking into consideration printed materials, an advertising campaign, and a redesigned website (where all the rebranded elements would need to appear), costs could approach $25,000.

In addition, clarification is needed to determine materials management communications roles as well as deciding on how the final messaging should be applied to the Commonwealth Campuses. The key aspect of this plan is to establish a credible (likeable and trusted) as well as familiar brand image regarding sustainability (waste management) at Penn State. Then all messaging and information relevant to sustainability will come from this brand, which increases consistency in messaging as well as a point of contact as waste management practices change as change is inherent in this area. The Waste Reduction and Recycling Programs Manager would lead this brand and communications, perhaps selecting one particular issue/theme to highlight each semester or month (e.g., reusable mugs; reusing and refilling water bottles; all about composting; all about recycling/sorting/contamination; reusable food containers, etc.) for there to be consistent communications and brand awareness (thus also a long-term goal).

Committee members would need to include representatives from:

  • Strategic Communications
  • Office of Physical Plant
  • College of Communications (Lee Ahern)
  • Department of Psychology (Janet Swim)
  • Auxiliary and Business Services Marketing Team
  • Sustainable Operations Council
  • Commonwealth Campuses
  • Sustainability Institute
  • HUB Marketing
  • University Libraries Marketing
  • Athletics
  • Consumer Behavior (Karen Winterich)
  • Retail Dining

Motivating Behavior Change

First, it is proposed that the Sustainability Institute hire a behavioral science graduate student for three years to provide advice to SI, OPP, the Sustainable Operations Council, all of its sub-task forces, and all other Finance and Business units on ways for behavior change tools to be integrated into their programs, as well as designing pilots that classes could conduct to test program improvements. It is hoped that by the end of the three-year term, the program managers

in many F&B departments will have gained knowledge and skills and be able to apply these concepts to their program independently. The position description, budget, and example projects are included in Appendix VII: Proposed Behavioral Science Graduate Student Position Draft .

Additionally, the Waste Reduction and Recycling Programs Manager, in concert with the Sustainability Institute will work with Strategic Communications, New Student Orientation, Global Programs for International Student Orientation, New Employee Orientation, the HUB, and Housing to create an information blitz, showing the impact of recyclables and the importance of contamination issues, and therefore correct sorting. These touchpoints will also be used to discuss the readily available opportunities (and any potential incentives) for reuse/reduction.

Sustainability Institute staff will work with the Materials Research Institute and the College of Arts and Architecture to showcase reuse of materials. One possibility is to use the display area in the HUB lounge to show fleece jackets, carpets, and other products made from recyclable feedstocks. Another opportunity would be to host a presentation by Pepsi and other Penn State partners to showcase recycling impact.

Film screenings showing reusing and recycling as normal in everyday life should be sponsored by both professionals and students. Some ideas for themes include playing upon the “We are…” theme, using “Sustain State,” or “Recycling/Reuse: It’s what we do, and this is how we do it.”

Another way to motivate behavior change is to work with Athletics to play PSAs at games that encourage recycling and have information on the “how to” for common stadium/game disposables/recyclables. This would include information on empty bottles only and when/what it is acceptable to trash (describing non-recyclables that are often wish-cycled) to reduce contamination.

And finally, partner with the Sustainable Communities Collaborative for fall 2019 to develop fun, in-person campaigns for behavior change.

Expand sorting skills

To expand the sorting skills on campus, it is recommended that the former Mobius recycling game be updated by working with College of Liberal Arts, whose IT department has offered to update this game for Penn State. This should be finished in time to coordinate with OPP’s changing of the bins.

Another approach to support sorting skills is an app. Last year, two College of Information Sciences and Technology classes created a prototype showing two possible app designs. Using their models, we’ve met with two firms to develop the ideas further into two options, each with a price point, scope, and timeline as follows:

Option A: Launch a high performing, robust mobile app that will provide an interactive way to recycle successfully, act as a two-way communication tool to provide recycling updates to users, collect data on behaviors, offer real-time feedback to help track successes/challenges of the Penn State recycling program, and other features. This option would take 6-9 months to develop with an outside firm and cost up to $250,000 plus annual fees for updates and changes. A mobile app requires ongoing maintenance and updates in order to continually function across all platforms but offers substantial opportunities for gathering user feedback and data which has the potential to shape future changes to the recycling program.

Option B: Launch a high-performing web app, accessed via the user’s internet browser, that has less advanced features than a mobile app but is more interactive than a website. While the features are not as complex, a web app is easier to maintain, less expensive, and is more suitable for student work. Consulting fees from a professional firm, at cost of up to $50,000, would enhance the success and usability of a web app.

Whether or not either of these apps are developed, it will be important to launch a comprehensive website, The website will offer thorough details on recycling best practices, FAQs, tips on reuse and waste reduction, and be the definitive resource for recycling and consumer waste management information across the University. This can be developed by the Sustainability Institute in partnership with OPP and with student involvement. The website will be ‘mobile friendly,’ but not as convenient and interactive as a web app could be. The Sustainability Institute will work with staff and students to develop and launch this site in the coming six months.

Investing in this online FAQ guide is critical given 69% of those requesting information would like to be able to access information on a website with FAQ. Additionally, of the 76% of survey respondents requesting more information, 31% indicated interest in an app and 49% indicated interest in online games.

The creation of a set of email templates, similar to those created for the Green Teams, is needed to motivate and educate about reduction, reuse, and recycling, including proper preparation techniques for recycling, such as rinsing and emptying liquids. The topics would be identified from the Penn State waste audit conducted in 2018. Each email would focus on a specific product or material and include pictures of the item and the correct bin. These would be sent to Green Teams and Facilities Coordinators and all marketing contacts. Though we recognize many people are inundated by extraneous emails, 19% of survey respondents indicate an email newsletter as a preferred way to receive information about appropriate sorting.

The Sustainability Institute created a “Recycling Roadshow” in 2016 to demonstrate sorting techniques using miniature recycling bins. Three demonstration kits exist. Two to three recycling ambassador internships could be created to present the Roadshow for colleges and units. The roadshow could be useful as 30% of those requesting more information wanted in- person information sessions These students could also oversee a social media campaign focused on reduce, reuse, and recycle information.

Short podcasts or videos could be created about both plastics bins and compost that could be rolled out through social media. The help of marketing or communications classes could be enlisted in fall 2019 to help create these videos.

Reducing contamination

Reducing contamination will be a key aspect to making our solid waste management efforts successful. The best way to reduce contamination is to educate the community on proper recycling practices.

It is recommended that waste education should be integrated into New Student Orientation and a freshman seminar, called Living Sustainably at Penn State, as well as New Staff Orientation. This long-term recommendation is supported by survey respondents (85% agreed with the recommendation, with 62% selecting “Strongly Agree”). Moreover, 20% of respondents who left open-ended comments on the survey requested more training on appropriate sorting of waste, many specifically mentioning training via New Student and New Staff Orientations.

Additionally, a strategy should be developed to improve messaging about responsible consumerism and disposal. As part of its outreach and education, Penn State should make it clear that liquids need to be drained from containers either into the sink (for kitchen staff) or into the refuse container before being placed in the appropriate recycling container. Also, a specific public awareness campaign should be launched to combat wish-cycling (contamination that occurs when someone “hopes” that a non-compliant material can be recycled so places there rather than as trash), e.g., “when in doubt, throw it out.”

It is also important to remember that the current Penn State and Centre County recovery program is unique. Many students coming to State College likely are accustomed to single stream recycling. Extra outreach and education is necessary to reach high levels of participation and understanding of proper material separation for a multi-sort program like the current one. As such, it is recommended that a team of “recovery champions” is engaged to assist during program transition to focus on specific buildings and stakeholder groups. Also, the potential to implement a Community-Based Social Marketing campaign to impact social norms and behaviors should be investigated. Finally, University units that provide/control communication outlets to various University constituencies should include recycling education in their message This includes student and staff orientations, housing, athletics, etc. The investment in a new brand and the hiring of a Waste Reductions and Recycling Programs Manager will make it more manageable for these units to implement such messaging while keeping the message consistent for the respective audience.

Clarification is needed regarding a leadership role as well as appropriate roles among the Office of Physical Plant, the Sustainability Institute, Auxiliary and Business Services, and Strategic Communications to effectively educate Penn State constituents. Student classes and organizations can assist with waste audits for educational purposes. For example, the EcoReps could conduct residence hall audits, Net Impact for the Smeal College of Business audit, and SUST200 or an Industrial Engineering class for other waste audits. Additionally, classes (perhaps through the Sustainable Communities Collaborative) as well as the Office of Student Affairs could help assess knowledge and awareness among the student population.

Implementation of the recommendations would require the partnership of the offices mentioned above as well as and specifically New Student Orientation, Global Programs for International Student Orientation, New Employee Orientation, Housing, the HUB, Dining Services, and Athletics. Externally, partners necessary for successful implementation include the Centre County Recycling and Refuse Authority and the Pennsylvania Recycling Markets Center to foresee upcoming changes in the market, as well as a potential external communications firm to launch a campaign. Resources needed for a successful implementation of this initiative would include funding for the rebranding initiative, hiring a waste reduction and recycling programs manager, the behavioral science GA, as well as time commitments from Penn State partners.

If revisions to procurement, compost facilities, waste reduction strategies, and recycling are known by Summer 2019, then the launch of the proposed campaign will occur in Fall 2019 with training for custodial, dining, catering, housing, and facilities coordinators as well as New Student Orientation. Football games and other fall athletic events would also be part of this phase of the campaign. Other efforts will be ongoing to manage communications prior to changes by independent units via the adopted protocol as well as encourage waste reduction and reuse initiatives on an ongoing basis for consistent brand awareness and engagement.

Returns and Impact

The biggest initial cost to implement these recommendations would be investing in a waste reduction and recycling programs manager. This position will be an ongoing investment, however benefits include reduced recycling contamination penalties, reduction in landfill waste costs, and more marketable waste (higher value).

Operationally, the recommendations will result in less recycling contamination with better recycling rates and reduced landfill waste, which will decrease University costs and increase the value of the recyclables to potential buyers.

Academically, student classes and organizations can assist with campaign roll out and other educational awareness, as well as waste audits and measurement of impact. Educational awareness opportunities for classes could include app development for updated info and a Q&A by a College of Information Sciences and Technology class; a sorting game updated by the IT staff  in the College of Liberal Arts; and a legacy project for students. The campaigns can also be tested for effectiveness via brand awareness, behavioral knowledge, and waste audits.

Other long-term benefits include the alignment of University actions with its Strategic Plan, increased confidence from the student body and other University stakeholders due to greater transparency, increasing trust and buy-in in initiatives, and University recognition as a leader in waste management in higher education. Ongoing communications with a protocol for changes will help circumvent the uncertainty of the recycling market. If waste management communications are not managed or are done poorly, the trust that University constituents have in the University will decline.

With increased awareness among Penn State constituents on campus, behaviors should also change off campus, which will reduce contamination and improve reduction, reuse, and recycling in everyday life. This will also bring increased awareness of composting, which is consistent with State College borough efforts.

These communication strategies should be reexamined on an ongoing basis given unknown and potentially sudden changes to the recycling market. This ongoing examination will be handled by the waste reduction and recycling programs manager. In addition, it is recommended that upcoming changes are considered each year in January in order for communications to be planned in the spring, implemented in the summer, and ready each fall.

Advocacy Network

In spring 2019 the Waste Stream Task Force surveyed the University community to assess the satisfaction, importance, and understanding of waste management at Penn State. Of the more than 1,000 respondents, reducing greenhouse gas emissions and eliminating waste from the landfill were the most common reasons for Penn State to invest in more sustainable waste management practices. Students, staff, and faculty desire a solid waste system where decision processes are open and transparent, there is regular dissemination of high quality information as well as education regarding effective waste management strategies at Penn State.

Their strong interest of the University community in this topic, with a desire to stay connected and informed regarding waste stream management. To satisfy this interest and maintain enthusiasm as new programs are developed, we recommend establishment of a network of stakeholders, including students, faculty, staff as well as internal and external partners. Important external stakeholders include local entities such as the Centre County Refuse and Recycling Authority (CCRA) and local government organizations, including State College Borough and the other Centre Region municipalities. Student groups that focus on waste management, advocacy, and education include EcoReps, Eco Action, and the Lion’s Pantry. Further resources include the University’s Office of Physical Plant (OPP), Environmental Health Services (EHS), Housing, Food Services, and Residence Life, as well as the Lion Surplus Store and Auxiliary and Business Services.