Research Summary

Comparing the effectiveness of education and technology in reducing wood smoke pollution: A field experiment

Education and Technology Equally Effective at Achieving Environmental Benefits

Journal of Environmental Psychology

Across Australia, people use wood-burning stoves to heat their homes in winter. It’s a relatively inexpensive heating method, but the stoves generate air pollution that causes public health problems. In Perth alone, the health cost of wood smoke pollution was estimated at over $20 million.

The authors of this paper investigated two main ways to address this environmental problem: education and technology. The educational approach involved a multimedia educational campaign that emphasized the health risks associated with wood smoke and the best ways to minimize it. The technological approach involved the installation of a small device that has been shown to reduce particle emissions in wood stoves by up to 50% in the laboratory. The authors wondered which approach would yield a larger reduction in wood smoke pollution, or whether the two approaches combined would be most effective.

To find out, they worked with one small Australian community. Researchers knocked on the doors of residents in each of the main sections of the city and invited one adult per household to participate if he or she used a wood heater as the main source of heat for the home. Using this method, the researchers recruited 316 participants. On average, the participants were long-term residents of the community, about evenly distributed between males and females, and more than half had completed two or more years of college. The participants were randomly assigned to one of four groups: one group received educational materials, another the technological fix, the third received both education and technology, and a fourth group received neither.

The education approach followed the recommendations of the Community Based Social Marketing approach, which advocates identifying barriers to a desired action and using psychological tools to help overcome them. Focus groups in the community revealed two main barriers standing between residents and limited wood smoke emissions: lack of knowledge about how to properly operate the wood stove and lack of knowledge about the health effects of wood smoke pollution. The education materials developed to address these barriers included pamphlets with information about health issues and best practices for operating wood stoves to limit pollution. The education materials also included a DVD that provided behavioral modeling of the best way to operate the stove and refrigerator magnets to remind participants of the best way to operate their stove.

The technological approach, called SmartBurn, is a canister that is placed in the woodstove. It improves combustion efficiency, causing the fire to burn hotter and reducing particle emissions. This technological fix is designed to produce pollution reduction without any change in people’s behavior. Participants who received the SmartBurn device were instructed in how to place the device in their heaters but did not receive any educational materials. Participants in the “no treatment” group were asked not to use a SmartBurn device, which is commercially available, during the duration of the study.

The researchers trained raters who visited each house in the study and visually inspected the smoke rising from each home. They developed a rating system to gauge the amount of particle emissions from each chimney. The raters visited the homes six times before the treatments were administered, and six times after. Each home was visited by two raters to ensure agreement about the ratings. Because participants were not always home when the raters visited, the researchers averaged the three highest scores for each home before and after the treatments.

Interestingly, the researchers found that the education and technology approaches achieved about the same results, and there didn’t seem to be any additional benefit in doing both. It’s important to note, though, that the results were modest; the reduction in emissions was not dramatic. Also of interest was the fact that the emission reductions in the education group was almost entirely because of participants’ increased knowledge about how to properly operate their wood stoves. This group had no better understanding the health risks associated with wood smoke pollution as a result of reading the educational materials.

In reflecting on the effect of the education materials, the authors caution that, “Although the education and technology-based interventions produced similar results in the current study, the reader should not assume that the two interventions are interchangeable. There may be other contextual factors that may lead to the preference of one intervention over the other.” They note that this study took place in a university town where residents are relatively well educated and may be more enthusiastic about education materials.

They also wonder whether the relative ineffectiveness of the information related to health risks is because of psychological factors or the quality of the materials. They surmise that it’s possible that this result “simply reinforces previous findings concerning a gap between people’s awareness of environmental threats and their willingness to act on that knowledge.” They also note that previous reviews have “found that environmental education interventions that targeted behavior directly tended to be more effective than interventions that aim to influence behavior by changing cognition.” But, they emphasize that they provided less health information than other types of information, and the design and style of the health information was different. It’s possible that people didn’t pay as much attention to this information because there was less of it and it wasn’t as well-designed, organized, or compelling. They call for further research to better evaluate different types of information and their presentation.

Although the results were modest, the authors think that this research does demonstrate that education and technology are both viable approaches in dealing with environmental issues, such as air pollution.

The Bottom Line

This study demonstrates that education can be an effective tool to directly improve environmental conditions such as air quality. In this study, education was just as effective as a common technological fix in reducing air pollution from wood smoke. The educational approach in this study was based on Community Based Social Marketing, where the authors identified barriers to the desired behavior, and developed an education campaign to target the barriers. The campaign included information, behavioral prompts, and behavioral modeling. But the study has significant limitations: it is a small study conducted in one town, where residents are relatively well educated and may have been more open to an educational approach. This underscores the need to know your audience. In other situations, a technological approach might be more appropriate.