The efficacy of a theory-based, participatory recycling intervention on a college campus.

AuthorLargo-Wight, Erin


Protecting the environment is increasingly recognized as a centerpiece of public health in the U.S. and around the world (McMichael, Butler, & Folke, 2003). Environmental resources such as soil, water, air, and biodiversity provide the building blocks necessary for human health. As environmental consumption increases and consequences of climate change exacerbate, consensus is growing that public health action is needed to protect environmental resources necessary for human health (Costello et al., 2009; McMichael, Butler, & Folke, 2003; McMichael et al., 2003; Patz et al., 2000).

Howard Frumkin, a past director of the National Center for Environmental Health/ Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and current dean of the School of Public Health at University of Washington, and Anthony McMichael wrote (2008), "Health professionals should motivate people toward both appropriate personal behaviors and collective decisions that will protect health from the effects of climate change (p. 405)." This recent call for primary prevention action calls on health promoters to utilize behavior change theory and evidence to guide health behavior change efforts related to environmental issues (Frumkin, Hess, Luber, Malilay & McGeehin, 2008; Howze, Baldwin, & Kegler, 2004; Largo-Wight, 2011). Environmental health efforts that involve changing human behavior should utilize health education and health promotion theories and approaches.

"Environmental health promotion" is a term representing an emerging and needed collaboration between environmental health and health education and health promotion. Environmental health promotion is the bridge between environmental health and health education (Howze et al., 2004); it is the application of preventative health approaches and behavior change theories to environmental problems. This collaboration enables two critical public health goals to be addressed--promoting the environment for the health of the public and protecting the environment for the health of the public. Promoting the environment involves cultivating and creating healthy places and communities that foster health outcomes among residents. Protecting the environment involves both strategies for development and conservation that foster and protect the health of the environment and its residents. Thus, the promotion of "environmental" health behaviors, such as recycling, to protect the environment and Earth's resources necessary for human life and health are important (Largo-Wight, 2011).

Recycling and College Campuses

An environmental health behavior that needs immediate attention is recycling solid waste (Castro, Garrido, Reis, & Menezes, 2009). Recycling solid waste protects the environment and natural resources and therefore protects and promotes the health of the public (Frumkin, Hess, Luber, Malilay, & McGeehin, 2008). Recycling is healthful in that it reduces the emissions related to waste disposal, reduces the need to harvest raw material for production of new goods, and reduces energy consumption related to production of new materials (Lansana, 1992; U.S. Environmental Protection Agency [U.S. EPA], 2013). For example, Americans recycled about 33% of total municipal solid waste in 2009, which is equivalent to saving almost 225 million barrels of oil (U.S. EPA, 2009). Despite the healthier land, air, and water-related benefits of waste recycling, recycling behavior still needs public health attention. Approximately 90% of the waste generated in the U.S. could be recycled, but Americans are recycling only about 30% of their trash (Castro et al., 2009). In a call to action, Healthy People 2020: Improving the Health of Americans prioritized the need to increase recycling in the U.S. over the next 10 years. Objective EH-12 aimed to increase municipal waste recycling behavior by 10% (Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion, 2011).

Schools and college campuses represent a recycling intervention priority worldwide because of the potential for colleges and universities to contribute to a community's waste stream and impact environmental-related human health (American College Health Association, 2002; Ana et al., 2011; Creighton, 1998; Largo-Wight, Bian, & Lange, 2012). In recognition of the impact colleges and universities have on their communities, most higher education campuses in the U.S. provide recycling opportunities through the availability of basic recycling infrastructure on campus (Mason, Brooking, Oberender, Harford, & Horsley, 2003). Public universities' recycling rates should be improved, however. Previous studies concluded that campus recycling rates are similar to the national household and municipal recycling statistics in the U.S.; only about one-third of recyclable waste is diverted from the landfills and recovered for recycling (Chase, Dominick, Trepal, Bailey, & Friedman, 2009). Intervention studies have shown that campus recycling can be increased with effective campaigns. Previous findings have shown that multifaceted campaigns that involved increasing recycling convenience along with various education, awareness, and communication strategies increased recycling on campus (e.g., Chase et al., 2009).

Behavior Change Theory

Health behavior theories are used to guide evidenced-based behavior change programs. Theories are practical tools, based on aggregate behavioral research findings, that target the determinants of behavior change to guide study and primary prevention intervention (Glanz, Rimer, & Lewis, 2002). The Theory of Reasoned Action and Planned Behavior (TPB) is commonly used to study recycling behavior (Valle, Rebelo, Reis, & Menezes, 2005). TPB assumes that behavioral intention, one's commitment to act, is the strongest predictor of behavior. Perceived behavioral control, attitude toward behavior, and subjective norm are the theory's direct constructs that inform behavioral intention. Programs and interventions that are guided by TPB should involve enhancing the theory's constructs in order to facilitate behavioral intention and ultimately behavior change (Glanz et...

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