Unexpected challenges are an inherent part of any research project. Our team has been pleasantly surprised by a welcome challenge––some groups sort their waste so well that our data collection has been deemed useless. Considering one of the core goals of our project is to divert waste from landfills, this is a great problem to have!

Upon performing waste audits, we quickly noticed a trend in waste sorting of guests. We found that waste was sorted nearly perfectly, if not perfectly, at events for those with an environmental background––dinner parties for wolf conservation activists or events for aquaria professionals or Aquarium donors. However, the waste disposal habits of the average, daily Aquarium visitor were not up to par.

While our research doesn’t explore the behavioral biases of such groups, environmentalists and the average visitor, it has certainly unveiled a pattern. There are many factors that could impact people’s waste sorting behavior. We hypothesize that the environmentally conscious may have had higher education related to the environment or simply possess a greater awareness of and commitment to one’s environmental impact. That doesn’t mean the average person doesn’t care about the environment, they may have simply never been informed of proper waste disposal habits.

Relying on people’s own good will and access to education is dangerous. Caring for the planet shouldn’t be a personal burden. The average person should be able to sort easily and mindlessly, with the help of proper signage. As such, one of our team’s biggest goals this quarter is to increase landfill diversion by making waste sorting as easy as possible for everyone. We’re unsure what signage will be most effective but we plan to test signs to ensure efficacy prior to implementation. However, we believe using images or graphics of items commonly disposed in each category of waste––recycling, compost, and landfill––will be the best option, as it is accessible regardless of age or language. Once we identify effective signage, we plan to post signs above waste bins around the Aquarium, in an attempt to improve waste sorting of the average visitor and to make environmental choices more accessible for all!