Environmental Management

, Volume 58, Issue 2, pp 268–282 | Cite as

Environmental Behavior’s Dirty Secret: The Prevalence of Waste Management in Discussions of Environmental Concern and Action

  • Rachelle K. GouldEmail author
  • Nicole M. Ardoin
  • Matt Biggar
  • Amanda E. Cravens
  • Deb Wojcik


Humankind and the planet face many thorny environmentally related challenges that require a range of responses, including changing behaviors related to transportation, eating habits, purchasing, and myriad other aspects of life. Using data from a 1201-person survey and 14 Community Listening Sessions (CLSs), we explore people’s perceptions of and actions taken to protect the environment. Our data indicate a striking prevalence of waste management-related actions. Survey respondents described actions and concerns related to trash, recycling, and composting as the most common environmental behaviors; similarly, participants in CLSs discussed waste-related topics, for which we did not prompt, as frequently as those topics for which we specifically prompted. Explanations for this prevalence emerging from the data include (1) the nature of waste-related behaviors (concrete, supported by infrastructure, simple, compatible with lifestyle); (2) norms and social dynamics (family interactions, feelings of belonging/participation, government policy); and (3) internal psychological processes (internalized norms and environmental concern). We also found that many waste-related discussions were relatively superficial, focusing on immediate waste-related issues (e.g., litter or recycling) rather than larger issues such as consumption. Our results may provide insight into future efforts to encourage pro-environmental behavior. Given that most pro-environmental behavior involves tasks more complex and lifestyle-changing than those related to simple aspects of waste management, we suggest focusing on the latter two intertwined categories that our data suggest are important: encouraging social dynamics and related development of norms concerning environmental behavior (category 2), and fostering internalized norms and environmental concern (category 3).


Environmental education Litter Pro-environmental behavior Recycling Self-efficacy Social norms 



We thank our survey and community listening session respondents for their time. We also thank the S. D. Bechtel, Jr. Foundation for generous funding of the Environmental Learning in the Bay Area project.

Supplementary material

267_2016_710_MOESM1_ESM.docx (28 kb)
Supplementary material 1 (DOCX 28 kb)


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media New York 2016

Authors and Affiliations

  • Rachelle K. Gould
    • 1
    • 2
    Email author
  • Nicole M. Ardoin
    • 1
  • Matt Biggar
    • 1
  • Amanda E. Cravens
    • 3
  • Deb Wojcik
    • 4
  1. 1.Graduate School of Education and Woods Institute for the EnvironmentStanford UniversityStanfordUSA
  2. 2.Rubenstein School of Environment and Natural ResourcesThe University of VermontBurlingtonUSA
  3. 3.Gould Center for Conflict ResolutionStanford Law SchoolStanfordUSA
  4. 4.Career and Professional Development Center, Nicholas School of the EnvironmentDuke UniversityDurhamUSA

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