Integrating Social Science and Systems Methodologies for Sustainability: Promoting Appropriate Waste-Disposal Practices in Low-Income Neighborhoods

An interdisciplinary team of researchers at Johns Hopkins have been examining approaches for reducing trash and promote recycling in low-income urban neighborhoods. The project aims to improve the health and environment of the communities by increasing effective communication between residents, landlords and city agencies.


With support from the National Science Foundation’s Interdisciplinary Behavioral and Social Sciences Research (IBSS) program, the team investigated why waste accumulates in low-income urban areas in Baltimore and explored a range of solutions to empower residents to proactively deal with waste in their communities.

In the course of the project, the team:

  • Conducted a small-scale quantitative study to assess social and physical factors affecting waste accumulation at the neighborhood, block and household levels in North Patterson Park.
  • Partnered with the Patterson Park Neighborhood Greening Partnership (PPNGP) and helped to produce the Patterson Park Clean City Guide that provides residents a “how to” for trash removal, recycling, and rat prevention.
  • Created a systems dynamics model to map pathways of municipal solid waste, with the assumption this process is influenced by social norms, financial incentives, knowledge, and contextual factors.
  • Developed and implemented an initial set of interventions to improve household and community waste management. The above-mentioned Clean City Guide primarily targets an audience that already seeks or is engaged in efforts to reduce trash accumulation. Magnets and flyers provided cues to action such as trash schedule to loop in other residents to think about where their waste goes.

As a follow up to the above activities, the team is conducting surveys to gather additional information on individuals’ perceptions of waste management and to evaluate how the materials are helping to educate community members.


Guo, H, Hobbs, BF, Lasater, ME, Parker, CL and PJ Winch. (2016.) “System Dynamics-based Evaluation of Interventions to Promote Appropriate Waste Disposal Behaviors in Low-Income Urban Areas: A Baltimore Case Study,” Waste Management, 56: 547-560.

The Research Team

Principal Investigator: Peter Winch, Professor and Director of the Social and Behavioral Interventions Program, Dept of International Health


  • Jian Ni , Associate Professor, Carey Business School and Dept of Economics
  • Cindy Parker, MD, MPH, Assistant Scientist, Dept of Environmental Health and Engineering (School of Public Health)
  • Ben Hobbs, Professor, Dept of Environmental Health and Engineering (School of Engineering) and E²SHI Director

Student Investigators:

Social and Behavioral Interventions Program, Dept of International Health, Bloomberg School of Public Health
  • Molly Lasater
  • Kriti Sharma
  • Namratha Rao
  • Aachal Devi
Dept of Environmental Health and Engineering, Whiting School of Engineering
  • Huaqing Guo

Recommended Reading

The Baltimore Sustainability Plan - see section on cleanliness

Schwebel, MB. (2012.) "How can a successful multi-family residential recycling programme be initiated within Baltimore City, Maryland?" Waste Manag Res, 30(7): 727-737. 

Sibley, CG and Liu JH. (2003.) "Differentiating Active and Passive Littering: A Two-Stage Process Model of Littering Behavior in Public Spaces." Environment and Behavior, 35(3): 415-433. 

Schultz, PW, Bator, RJ, Brown Large, L, Bruni CM, Tabanico, JJ. (2013.) "Littering in Context: Personal and Environmental Predictors of Littering Behavior." Environment and Behavior, 45(1): 35-59. 

Cohen DA, Mason K, Bedimo A, Scribner R, Basolo V, Farley TA. (2003.) "Neighborhood physical conditions and health." Am J Public Health, 93:467-471.

Dolan A. (2007.) "`That's just the cesspool where they dump all the trash': exploring working class men's perceptions and experiences of social capital and health." Health, 11:475-495.

When we were young, we had trouble seeing the cattle in the grassland. Now we can see the mice.
— Chinese farmers as quoted in The Coming Famine by Julian Cribb