Earth Day Q&A with Dr. Jiaying Zhao: Convenience, real-time feedback makes us more environmentally aware

Dr. Jiaying Zhao 'Sorting it Out' at a UBC sorting station. Photo: UBC Sustainability Initiative, Joao Correa.

Dr. Jiaying Zhao ‘Sorting it Out’ at a UBC sorting station. Photo: UBC Sustainability Initiative, Joao Correa.

Earth Day is April 22, an annual reminder to reflect on the impact of our actions and to consider how we can lighten our footprint on our earth. Despite an increasing awareness of how our actions impact our environment, adopting sustainable behaviours is not always easy. Jiaying Zhao, assistant professor in Cognitive Science at the Department of Psychology and UBC’s Institute of Resources, Environment and Sustainability, explains that this is because behaviour change requires more than just education; many simple factors (such as convenience) can be the key to helping us become more environmentally friendly.

What’s a common misconception about changing sustainable behaviour?

The most common misconception is that education is the key to behaviour change. For example, many people believe that we need to teach people about the benefits of an action before they will engage in it. This is a widely held view among environmentalists, but it’s not entirely accurate. People already know the benefits and the reasons for taking the action, or they are indifferent. A recent perspective from behavioural science is that we can design simple interventions to create large changes in behaviour without explicit education.

How can we apply your research on behaviour change to help advance sustainability?

Two recent studies from my lab show that convenience improves recycling and composting rates by over 60 per cent in multi-family residential buildings, and real-time visual feedback reduces water consumption by over 30 per cent. Our findings suggested that by minimizing the distance between the recycling station and the suites in an apartment building, people were more inclined to recycle and compost. When it comes to water use, real-time monitoring systems that occupants could see can help encourage water conservation.

What is one change that individuals can make to help contribute to a more sustainable future?

I know this is a highly controversial and sensitive topic, but all the data suggest that if we consume less animal products, we can significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions, reduce water pollution, increase biodiversity, promote animal welfare, and even improve our own health conditions. I’m not saying we shouldn’t eat meat at all, but rather, I’m simply suggesting that we need to consume less animal products. Perhaps introducing a meat-free day every week, for example, “Meatless Monday” would be a great start.

This Q and A was originally published on UBC News by UBC Sustainability Initiative.

For more on UBC’s Earth Day initiatives, click here.