The Power of Perception: Studying Sustainability Contradictions on Campus

all our ideas screenshot
Posted on November 30, 2016

In 2015, the Office of Sustainability evaluated sustainability contradictions on campus by surveying staff and students. The survey was administered using a free, online wiki survey tool called All Our Ideas, which was created by Professor Matthew Salganik from the Department of Sociology. The findings have revealed areas rich with opportunities to develop initiatives that better align campus practices with sustainability principles, as well as where there are mismatches between perception and reality. 

The key question asked in the survey was, "Which campus experience do you find to be most contradictory with sustainability?” The tool presented users with two options or "ideas" from which to choose. Based on their opinions, users could chose one idea over another, or a third, "I can't decide," option.  Users could also submit a response, which was then added to the pool of ideas to choose from; the tool continues to randomly pair combinations of ideas for as long as the user wants to "play."

At the end of the survey, each idea is given a score on a sale from 0 to 100, which indicates the estimated chance that the idea will win against another randomly chosen idea (e.g. a score of 100 means the idea is predicted to win every time and a score of 0 means the idea is predicted to lose every time).

The Pilot 

The survey was first piloted within Facilities before it was sent campus-wide. 

Here are the top ten responses from the pilot (164 user sessions with 7,266 votes; note that user session is not synonymous with unique user as the analytics do not provide that level of detail):

Survey Options Score (0-100)
Lights left on in empty spaces at night

80

Watering lawns (Poe Field in particular) mid-day on hot days 76
Lights left on in empty conference rooms, offices, libraries and lecture halls 72
Too many foam and plastic cups and plates at meetings and events 70
Mass mailings instead of (or in addition to) emails 68
Leftover food from events or meetings that is not donated or composted 68
Inefficient lighting still in place in many buildings 65
Paper towel dispensers in the bathrooms that dispense more than is needed 65
Providing compostable plateware and cups without a place to compost them 64
The overuse of paper cups for coffee 62

And the bottom ten responses:

Survey Options Score (0-100)
Lack of electric vehicle charging stations for personal cars 36
Single-serve coffee machines 35
Too many operations fleet vehicles 35
Unnecessary free stuff (ex. t-shirts) 33
Sales of soda on campus 32
Inadequate bike share program 30
High odor materials during small renovations 28
Campus dining venues available to staff lack sufficient vegan and vegetarian options 25
Not charging departments for their energy use 21
Serving animal products in the dining halls 10

After evaluating the pilot results, it was clear that the top responses were most relevant to Facilities' staff daily work lives, whereas the bottom ten may not have been as applicable, such as the question about dining halls. 

Student Surveys

Two separate surveys for undergraduate and graduate students were then sent out with student-specific options to choose from, plus new relevant ideas that were added by Facilities staff. The survey was advertised on listservs and table tents in the dining halls. 

Here are the top ten responses from undergraduates (251 user sessions and 4,761 votes):

Survey Options
Score (0-100)
Immense amount of food thrown away during Reunions and other large events 73
Too many foam and plastic cups and plates at meetings and events 71
No composting or recycling in Frist Late Meal area 70
Lights left on in empty study spaces, libraries, lecture halls, and more 68
Non-recyclable plastic cups in eating clubs 67
University continues to invest in fossil-fuel companies 67
Serving disposable bottled water at events 66
Inefficient lighting still in place in many buildings 65
Inefficient heating and cooling in residential halls 65
Bathroom lights permanently on 64

And the bottom ten responses:

Survey Options
Score (0-100)
The pervasive campus culture of individual achievement rather than service 35
Unnecessary free stuff (ex. t-shirts) 35
Campus dining venues lack sufficient vegan and vegetarian options and variety 33
Lack of communal drying racks in laundry areas 32
Students leave taps running while brushing teeth 29
Sustainability is not a required subject area for all Princeton students to study 29
Inadequate bike share program 28
Not having filtered water in all residential buildings 25
"GreenSpace" in Frist that is frequently ignored by students 24
Not enough recycling bins across campus 18

 Here are the top ten responses from graduate students (326 user sessions and 8,393 votes):

Survey Options
Score (0-100)
Not providing enough bins for "hard to recycle" products (e.g. electronic, light bulbs, etc.) 80
The use of styrofoam at Princeton sponsored events 80
Unnecessary use of high-intensity lighting at the stadium and track 78
Inefficient heating and cooling in many buildings 77
Football stadium lights on for just a few people 76
Providing compostable plateware and cups without a place to compost them 71
Serving canned or bottled beverages at meetings/events 68
The overuse of disposable coffee cups, sleeves, and stirrers 68
Too many foam and plastic cups and plates at meetings and events 67
"All You Can Eat" in the Dining Halls 67

And the bottom ten responses:

Survey Options
Score (0-100)
Limited attention to sustainability across the curriculum 32
Campus dining venues lack sufficient vegan and vegetarian options and variety 31
Frist TVs are always on 31
Washing machines that do not have cold water as the default setting 30
Not using natural gas for shuttles 30
Running Princeton buses with few people riding them 29
Graduate students printing papers they can read online 27
Natural gas-derived electricity on campus 22
No labeling of ethical food sources in campus dining halls 16
No electric car charging station in parking lots 13

Staff Surveys

A campus-wide staff survey was also distributed and advertised at an Academic and Administrative Managers Group (AAMG) meeting and through the Sustainability Staff Ambassador program

 Here are the top ten responses from staff (277 user sessions and 11,051 votes):

Survey Options Score (0-100)
Too many foam and plastic cups and plates at meetings and events 76
Waste leftover from campus events 72
Inefficient heating and cooling in offices 71
Lights left on in empty conference rooms, offices, libraries and lecture halls 70
Lack of creative work-from-home options to minimize campus energy use during the summer 70
Leftover food from events or meetings that is not donated or composted 69
Mass mailings instead of (or in addition to) emails 68
Lights left on in empty spaces at night 67
Inadequate paths for walking and biking to work from neighboring communities 65
Reunions cups that are thrown out instead of recycled 64

And the bottom ten responses:

Survey Options Score (0-100)
Use of "too powerful" devises for job (e.g. huge desktop computer when perhaps a table could be used for same work) 33
Frist TVs are always on 33
Lack of clarity about what campus natural areas are to be protected vs. developed 32
Bathroom faucets are too low to encourage rinsing of personal food and drink containers 32
Inadequate bike share program 31
High odor materials during small renovations 31
Staff members not abiding by University temperature standards 30
Not charging departments for their energy use 28
Sales of soda on campus 28
Serving animal products in the dining halls 10

Overall Findings & Next Steps

Overall, the top options selected among all surveyed groups were primarily related to events and waste. These included "Too many foam and plastic cups and plates at meetings and events"; "waste leftover from campus events"; "the use of styrofoam at Princeton sponsored events"; and "Immense amount of food thrown away at Reunions and other large events".  

To address the event-related sustainability contradictions happening across campus, the Office of Sustainability established The Sustainable Event Working Group. The group is made up of staff from key departments involved with event planning on campus, as well as students. The group has developed a list of sustainable event guidelines that can be applied to all events on campus to help guide event planners to green their events.

Another finding was a clear mismatch between the perception of what’s happening on campus and reality. For example, while many impactful behind-the-scenes operations have little impact on campus ethos, less-impactful, yet highly visible activities have an enormous perceived impact. To help bridge perception and reality, campus-wide communications efforts will continue.

Looking ahead, these and other findings are also helping to inform the next version of the University's Sustainability Plan, expected to be rolled out in 2017.