To Flush or Not to Flush? Part II

Introduction to the Human Capacity to Act Framework

In order to promote responsible environmental stewardship, education must focus first and foremost on effective environmental education. Changing human and consumer behavior can be difficult, but the topic of Pharmaceuticals and Personal Care Products (PPCPs) can capture attention of people and lead to a better understanding of how environmental science and protection can work together (Daughton, 2004). The challenge here is to see education turn into action. “The traditional thinking in the field of environmental education has been that we can change behavior by making human beings more knowledgeable about the environment and its associated issues” (Hungerford & Volk, 1990). The assumption here is that knowledge will lead to awareness and thus motivation for action. In this case, the action is what folks do with unused PPCPs-whether that is to flush them, throw them away, or bring them to a voluntary disposal site.


Figure 3

Figure 3. There is currently a gap in understanding human practices that needs to be addressed by learning more from people about specific questions such as how they perceive PPCPs, how they are making their decisions, and where they get their information. Social science research is needed to fill this gap and eventually lead to improved prevention efforts (Lam, et al. 2014).


The ecological effects of emerging pollutants on the environment and web of life are a focus in current research, but not much of the human dimensions side of the issue has been studied. Many of the social programs to reduce PPCPs from reaching aquatic ecosystems are based on education leading to consumers making informed decisions or different forms of take-back programs. Using the Human Capacity to Act (HCA) Framework as a basis in research, we look at how rational choice, social proof, and institutional choice may drive consumers in making decisions on the use and disposal of PPCPs. Learning how people understand, perceive, learn and make decisions about facing and avoiding risk is an important research element when looking at PPCPs disposal.


Figure 4

Figure 4. Human Capacity to Act (HCA) Framework


Human Capacity to Act Frameworks – compassionate systems

Ruben Anderson talks about the idea of compassionate systems as a result to deal with the “frustration and failure of behavior change” (Anderson, 2013). The most ignored fact about behavior, according to Ruben, is that the brain has a limited attention. We can watch 20 commercials or read 15 advertisements in magazines, but what will we take away from all of that? Are these commercials and ads actually communicating successfully enough that it will influence you to change your behavior? The failure of creating change occurs at the approach.

We live in a world that is built for rational people, so when we don’t do something, we get blamed for not caring. Compassionate systems recognize our limits and accept that humans can only do so much based on the influences around us. Instead of asking people to pay attention to what PPCPs they are buying, we need to look into the influences of social proof that have roots to rational choices influencing institutional change, not the people. Some research has shown that 95% of behavior is social, while the other 5% is rationally chosen (Anderson, 2013). By focusing on the social proof influence of PPCPs stewardship behavior change, there could be an increase in effectiveness with community engagement.

In a recent OSU extension survey studying where Oregonians get information, 95% and 67% of people look for emails from organizations/business in an online and phone survey respectfully (OSU Extension, 2014). There is a sense of trust in social networks and in what others are doing around us, so there can be an influence from social networks in positive environmental behavior change.

This blog is the second part of a three-blog series introducing a model and detailing its use through the example of PPCP disposal. Next time on the WISE Blog: we go more in-depth of the Human Capacity to Act Model with a specific case study that details the process.

Illustration 3


Credit to: Jennifer Lam, Samuel Chan, Tania Siemens, and Kayla-Maria Martin
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About Danielle Goodrich

I am a senior studying Environmental Science and Zoology at OSU. I started at Oregon Sea Grant in summer 2013 as a PROMISE Intern and I was then offered to continue to help with the WISE program and other projects.
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