Making it easy to do: New water fountain shows us how

A couple of months ago, WLSSD installed new water fountains with water bottle fillers in our buildings. As of today, the counter on one outside our Environmental Programs office says we’ve saved more than 800 plastic water bottles from being used.

But that isn’t what most interests me as I write this.

I’m drinking fewer diet sodas, too.

It’s so easy to just walk around the corner and fill up a giant plastic cup leftover from a visit to Subway that my daily habits are changing for the better – both environmentally and personally. Is there something to the idea that making the right thing easier is the best way to go? Is it something I personally can do more often?

Yes, there is something to the idea. Social science is loaded with studies about how to get people to do the right thing by making it easy. That’s one reason we have single-stream recycling, so you don’t have to go to the trouble of sorting everything.

A Virginia Tech study found that one of the main reasons some people don’t recycle is “it’s too much work,” according to the university’s Center for Leadership in Global Sustainability.

Drinking water fountains like the ones we have are proving their worth. Schools have found that children are better hydrated when they use refillable bottles than when they slurp at a traditional drinking fountain. That’s great, because clean drinking water is one of the miracles of modern civilization. Just imagine living in a long-ago era when it wasn’t possible to just turn on the tap and have cheap, clean water pour out. Given the long sweep of human history, this is a luxury, honestly.

In the bigger picture, we reduce our environmental impact by using such a drinking fountain.

Here’s one way of thinking about it: Take that bottle of water you bought at the store and fill it about one-quarter full with crude oil. That’s about how much oil it takes to make it, transport it and get rid of it. Sure, it can be recycled, but there’s still less environmental impact if you simply don’t buy it.

So are there lessons we can learn from this humble fountain? We advise people to put a simple recycling container next to their desks at offices, rather than having to walk over to one in the hallway. Nothing fancy – it could even be an empty cardboard box. It’s not being lazy; it just makes it easy to do the right thing.

I’m thinking about some ideas like this at home, a simple as keeping our food-scrap pail handy on our cutting board instead of hidden away in a cupboard.

Craig Lincoln
Environmental programs coordinator