Recycling Behaviors at the University of Florida: Strategies versus Consumer Tactics

Yian Wu

Authors:  Yian Wu, Dr. Susan Gillespie

Faculty Mentor:  Dr. Susan Gillespie

College:  College of Liberal Arts and Sciences


This research project investigated paper towel recycling in women’s bathrooms on the University of Florida campus. Recycling is typically a voluntary behavior, dependent on the individuals to know what, how, and where to recycle. It should be different to recycle in the private intimate spaces of bathrooms where consumers may be monitored by others. This project was guided by the distinction made by Michel de Certeau between the “strategies” of those in power, who seek to direct the behaviors of consumers—in this case, UF administration—and the “tactics” employed by those consumers, which are often at odds with institutional strategies. The “strategies” were gauged by newspaper accounts, the UF recycling website, local signage, and the placement of receptacles in bathrooms. Consumer “tactics” were measured by observations of “wrong” materials deposited in bathroom receptacles. Four hypotheses were devised to measure how much consumer behaviors match the expectations of the university administration. The results tentatively demonstrate that the most important factor impacting consumer recycling behaviors is the physical setup. Therefore, the main conclusion is that it is difficult to achieve consistent cross-campus recycling behaviors with inconsistent facilities. While overall consumer commitment is high, more can be done to achieve UF’s goal.

Poster Pitch

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17 Responses
  1. Hi Yian! I really enjoyed your presentation and your poster looks great. What was one of the most surprising things you learned from your research? Are there any results that you didn’t expect?

    1. Yian Wu

      Hi Indica! I have to say that even though I am studying “wrong trash” on campus, the overall recycling rate is rather high! People seem to be very careful when they are dealing with recycling paper towels when they are NOT provided enough options to dispose. This is also the thing that I did not expect before doing the research.

  2. Shannon Summers

    Hi Yian!
    I love your project! I think that this is an important topic and was wondering if you have any plans to expand your research and increase your sample size in future studies?

    1. Yian Wu

      Hi Shannon! Thank you so much! For this research per se, increasing the sample size would be hard because I only focus on recycling on campus. However, when I was talking with people from Office of Sustainability, they said they are working to align the recycling system at UF with the system in Gainesville. This is a much larger scope to expect! Also for expending my research, yes! I am working on a larger thesis which includes one additional hypothesis, i.e. the factor of the difference between uni-sex and multi-stall bathroom.

  3. James Shepperd

    I think you nailed in terms of physical set-up. I suspect the vast majority of people want to recycle and will do. However, the social engineers must keep it simple and obvious what to do so that the target audience doesn’t have to think about what to do–the desired behavior is obvious. Your poster nicely illustrates how the social engineering can create problems. I suspect you would have found a whopping effect had you done your study in a place where recycling is less common.

    Nice job!

    1. Yian Wu

      Hello James,
      Thank you so much! Yes I totally agree with you that the target audience for my research here are definitely more aware of the issue than people from other places where the notion of recycling just arises. Then the consistency and convenience of the physical setup will show its significance even more.

    1. Yian Wu

      Hi Joyce!
      Unfortunately I am graduating in one month but I definitely think it could be further studied! When I was gathering informations from campus, I got all kinds of variables that are interesting to explore. And even people want to study the same factors as I am doing here, there are also a lot of things that will be coming in the future because the recycling system on campus is evolving pretty fast!

  4. Gabriela Wade-Abston

    This is an interesting project. It is too late to add it to this research but if you did further research, I wonder if the placement of the bins in relation to the door has any influence. I know that I use the paper towel I dry my hands with to open the door and then have to throw it from the door. Just something to think about, have a great day!

    1. Yian Wu

      Hi Gabriela! This is such a nice point to add to my research!!! I did notice that the landfill bins that are placed next to the door always have a couple paper towels in it! In my research, I assumed that it is because people do not want to stand next to the recycling bins to dry their hands due to the limited space in the bathrooms. But what you said here could also be an aspect! Thank you for your idea!!

  5. Anna Baringer

    This is very neat! You did a great job presenting. I am wondering if you keep track of department variations at all? I ask because you might imagine that there is more recycling near departments studying topics relating to the environment, which could be interesting to look at.

    1. Yian Wu

      Hi Anna! Thank you! I actually did distinguish different department buildings at first, but it was hard to find enough sample size to do the research. But that is a good point to look into!!

  6. Jieli W

    Your research quantified most of the questions I’ve asked myself when contributing to paper towel recycling on campus. I’d be curious to see whether people are aware of how the set up in the bathrooms affect their tendencies. If you were to sent a out a survey, do you think the majority of people would know there is no significance between the green vs black plastic bags or acknowledge that they don’t discriminate where they put waste if the bins close together?