Architects and designers may be on the frontlines of the war against garbage, suggests a new University of British Columbia study, which found that people in "green buildings" are more likely to act in an environmentally responsible manner regardless of their past habits.

A group of UBC psychology students used a hidden camera to record other students' recycling decisions at two Vancouver campus cafeterias: the Centre for Interactive Research on Sustainability, a so-called "living laboratory" for sustainability research, and the Student Union Building, a relic from the late 1960s.

'The design of a building can be a powerful tool to shape behavior.'—Alessandra DiGiacomo, co-author of recycling study

At the CIRS cafeteria, 86 per cent of users properly recycled their waste, according to the findings. While, at the noticeably darker, dingier SUB lunchroom, only 58 per cent chose to recycle.

"The design of a building can be a powerful tool to shape behaviour," Alessandra DiGiacomo, a UBC graduate student and co-author of the study, said.

To weed out any potential bias from people occupying the environmentally friendly building, researchers administered surveys in both buildings and found that CIRS patrons didn't have more of a vested interest in the environment in general. DiGiacomo said this means that context is important.

The power of design

Perkins+Wills designed the CIRS building, which is a well-lit, mostly wooden space that ventilates natural air throughout.

"Design can absolutely influence people," Susan Gushe, a principal with the firm, told CBC News.

She says there are several things designers take into consideration when integrating recycling and garbage receptacles into buildings, such as:

  • Locating them in areas where people are likely to use them, such as the CIRS's kitchenettes.
  • Making bins easy to access for patrons and maintenance staff.
  • Clearly labelling bins.

It's also important to make the recycling hubs look good, she said.

"Do you want to see great big bins out in the corridor? No, not really," says Gushe. "You want to integrate the utilitarian things in a building into the fabric of the building, so that you don't have this really ugly stuff sitting out there."

Gushe points to her firm's design of recycling receptacles in a building at the University of Calgary. Bins are tucked into walls every 10 metres in the building's corridors and easily roll out, without heavy tops for patrons to struggle with.

She calls it, "recycling at its best," and said people are more likely to participate if the bins are well-implemented and clearly labelled.

She recently visited the building and was struck by how compliant its patrons were about not littering.

"There wasn't a single piece of garbage around," she says "There was no newspapers lying around ... There was no coffee drink cups. There was no plastic bottles."

The library paradox

More empirical research is needed to actually determine if design can change behaviour, says Robert Levit, an associate professor of architecture at the University of Toronto.

Architecture is not an agent of change, he says, but responsive and a participant in it. Architects design buildings for certain ways of living and social practices that "both shape and are shaped by the way people use buildings."

According to Levit, libraries have been restructured recently because they have become less about silent reading and more about community spaces. "It's not that the library decided on its own that they should rearrange the way people operate. 

"I don't think that there's a kind of 'if you do this, then people will do,' that kind of circumstance."

People have become increasingly aware that recycling is a good thing to do, he says. But he adds "that this kind of change in behaviour has to be linked to campaigns to raise awareness." People "have to have internalized the command, the desire, the moral compass."

Eye-tracking, signage studies

DiGiacomo, whose lab is already planning the next steps for this research, said she thinks it all comes down to design.

Both buildings offer the same recycling options and have similar signage indicating where to put different types of garbage, she points out. But they differ on the aesthetic of the building.

"Even in the SUB ... there are still these signs on the recycling stations that kind of draw attention to this issue of sustainability, but the rest of the building is not the most pleasant place to be in."

Researchers at the lab are conducting waste signage studies now, trying to determine what type of signs are most effective: coloured, black and white, or with or without icons.

In about two months, they will place the most effective signs at the waste disposals in both buildings. They will study the recycling choices of patrons wearing eye tracking devices in both buildings to help determine if the CIRS environmentally friendly design really makes people more likely to act green.