The saying that “one person can make a difference” may now come off as a cliché, but it still doesn’t make it less true. Take the case of Nicole Killen and TD Arena at the College of Charleston (CofC).
It is through Killen’s relentless efforts that this multi-purpose venue, home to the school’s men’s and women’s basketball and volleyball teams, got a significant boost to its sustainability program. When fans entered at the start of the 2022–23 basketball season, they encountered $30,000 worth of new recycling and trash bins that were a direct result of Killen’s hard work and dedication.
Killen’s successful mission arose through a combination of scholarly research, persuasive behavioral theories, and a deep-rooted concern for ecological issues. Her interest in sustainability blossomed during her undergraduate years at Christopher Newport University in Newport News, VA, where she majored in Environmental Biology. She then headed to the CofC to pursue a master’s degree in Environmental and Sustainability Studies.
Killen has focused her research on sustainable behavior change within athletic facilities with her thesis project, more specifically concentrating on recycling practices at TD Arena. “I am really interested in behavior change when it comes to sustainability and the daily actions and lifestyles that people have and how small changes can have a big effect,” she has explained.
Photo Courtesy today.cofc.edu / Catie Cleveland
Statistics show that many people believe sustainability is important, but far fewer follow green practices. A survey from the World Economic Forum found that nearly 95% of Americans support recycling; however, just over 30% recycle consistently. This “attitude-behavior gap” — the idea that people aren’t willing to change behavior even if they know it is beneficial to do so — is a concept Killen was familiar with through her research.
She also knew that people would recycle if there were effective motivations. Her home state of Virginia has mandatory recycling laws and achieved a 43.3% recycling rate in 2021. South Carolina, a state that doesn’t have such recycling regulations, had a 23.9% rate in 2021.
“Sustainability and climate change can seem like big things for people to tackle that they don’t even know where to start, but if we all can do small things every day, there can be a big payoff,” she told the CofC news site, The College Today.
Two bits of information really helped to turn Killen’s thesis into a real-life accomplishment. From Darcy Everett, then the director of CofC’s Center for Sustainable Development (CSD), she learned of a grant possibility for acquiring new recycling bins for the TD Arena.
Her thesis advisor, CofC Economics Professor Calvin Blackwell, informed her about a behavioral economic concept known as “The Nudge Theory,” which involves getting people to behave in a certain way without overtly requesting it. Killen says she was particularly intrigued by the idea that “even just putting up a sign that draws people’s attention to get them to do what you want them to do.”
Photo Courtesy CofC Sports
Using “The Nudge Theory” as inspiration, Killen researched what type of bins, signage, and branding would help to nudge people to recycle more at the arena. Toward this goal, she worked with the recycling solutions firm Clean Rivers and CofC’s assistant athletics director for event operations and facilities, Richard Bouknight. Killen praised Bouknight as someone who “wanted to be a leader in moving sustainability forward at the College because TD Arena hosts some of the biggest events.”
Her proposal not only received a $10,000 grant from the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control, but the amount was matched by both the college’s CSD and the athletic department.
The funds went to acquire 17 new branded trash and recycling bins for TD Arena.
The 2022–23 men’s basketball season saw the CofC Cougars improve from a 17–15 win-loss record in 2021–22 to 31–4 with just one home loss — and playing in the NCAA basketball tournament. The new recycling bins probably didn’t contribute directly to the winning environment inside TD Arena, but they certainly represent an environmental win inside and outside the venue.
Photo Courtesy CofC Sports
It is these sustainability victories that concern Killen, who now also works as the CSD’s Associate Director, the most. The world is changing whether we want to realize it or not,” she told The College Today. “It’s just a question of figuring out the best way to actually take action and create change.”