Small, sustainable actions make big impacts

Do you know how many small, sustainable actions you take every day, and how they stack up to save energy and water and reduce waste? Students in the Warner College of Natural Resources recently got the chance to find out how much turning off lights and turning the thermostat down adds up. At the same, time, they helped the City of Fort Collins with market research on a mobile app, “Lose a Watt,” that encourages sustainable behaviors.

Joulebug app, which allows you to track sustainable actions
A look at the free loseawatt app for your smartphone.

The app, powered by JouleBug, will be used by the City to target community members to reduce energy use as a part of the Lose-a-Watt Energy Prize campaign. Fort Collins is competing against 50 other communities around the country for the Georgetown University Energy Prize, a $5 million award for innovation in energy efficiency.

Students compete, track sustainable actions

The students, all enrolled in an introductory environmental communications course offered by the Department of Human Dimensions of Natural Resources, competed in teams to see which could be the most sustainable during a 10-day challenge. The friendly competition fit well with the app’s attempt to “gamify” sustainability — encouraging behavior by adding game elements into non-game situations.

Each time the students rode their bikes instead of driving, washed their clothes with cold water, or turned off the heat dry setting on their dishwashers, they earned points by “buzzing” that action in the app.

A student drinks from a reusable coffee mug
Students got to see how small things, like using a reusable coffee cup, added up to big reductions in carbon dioxide emissions, water use, and waste.

Students got additional points for snapping a photo of the action, commenting on it, or sharing it on social media. The app showed the impact of each action, allowing them to see exactly how much they reduced carbon footprints along the way. For example, buzzing “Blazing Saddles” when you rode a bike showed that this daily habit would be the equivalent of charging a laptop 7,171 times in a year.

Research needed to see if app creates change

CSU Assistant Professor Jen Solomon, instructor for the course, said the app provides a novel approach. “Gamification is used for encouraging healthy behaviors, but there aren’t many examples of gamification being used successfully to encourage sustainable behaviors.”

The students’ feedback turned up some important insights. Many felt that buzzing each and every time they turned off a light switch got repetitive, and resulted in more time spent on their phones. However, most said they learned new sustainable actions and that it made them think about their behavior more intentionally.

Conserving water, diverting waste, helping the environment

Warner students talk sustainability in the classroom
Students enjoyed competing on teams during the challenge to see which team could be the most sustainable.

The other big takeaway for the students? Small actions make a big impact. Their collective impact from the “buzz” they created over 10 days conserved 9,800 gallons of water (equivalent to 6,095 toilet flushes), diverted 409 pounds of waste (28 bags of garbage) and saved 5,918 pounds of carbon dioxide (equivalent to the emissions from powering four homes for a month).

Learning about sustainability is a typical part of coursework and life at CSU, particularly in the Warner College.

“The majority of people in our college lead sustainable lifestyles,” said Allison Robinson, a junior ecosystem science and sustainability major. “We study it, live it, and love it.”

Solomon is interested to see if any of the new behaviors students engaged in during the challenge will stick with them following the classroom exercise. “If using gamification encourages someone to pick up new sustainable habits and they stick, then this could be an effective means to create sustainable behavior.”