Call2Recycle CEO & President, Carl Smith, will be a guest blogger for the month of May on Waste & Recycling News. This is the eighth and final installment.
Recycling Surveys Offer Some Surprising Results – May 16, 2012
Municipalities Struggle with Hazardous Household Waste – May 14,2012
When to Sort the Recyclables – May 11, 2012
Tips for Recyclable Collection and Take-Back Programs at Retailers – May 9, 2012
Product Stewardship Must Be a Shared Responsibility – May 7, 2012
What is product stewardship? – May 3, 2012
Responsible Recycling – May 1, 2012
Motivated to Recycle
Multiple surveys tell us that only half of all Americans claim to recycle every day, while 13 percent are willing to admit that they never do. Of those that recycle, their diligence and consistency is unknown. Moving everyone to recycle consistently will not happen quickly. There is no single tactic by a particular group that will be effective. Motivating consumers to act on their increasing sense of responsibility toward the environment will require sustained, combined efforts tailored to different communities taking into account demographics, social mores, geographic conditions and other factors.
Surprisingly, there is some agreement about how to increase recycling participation. In a survey of recycling coordinators across the country the Government Accounting Office (GAO) discovered three practices most effective: 1) make recycling convenient and easy, 2) offer financial incentives, and 3) conduct public education and outreach. In addition to the financial motive, a Massachusetts’ Department of Environmental Protection report points out three other primary motivations for recycling: 1) perceived effectiveness, 2) concern about the environment, and 3) social pressure.
The convenience of curbside recycling and single-stream collection has increased recycling rates in communities across the country. But what is done about items that are not collected at the curb? Last year New York banned rechargeable batteries in household trash and required take-back programs at all retailers that sold them. When this happened Call2Recycle© saw a jump in retailers registering to participate in the free rechargeable battery recycling program. Battery collections from New York, however, have not increased correspondingly.
On the other hand, a large national study of economic behavior led by a Vanderbilt University researcher has found that effective recycling laws encourage reluctant recyclers to become committed recyclers. They studied water bottle recycling and found people tended to fall into two categories: diligent recyclers (40 percent) and those that don’t recycle at all (30 percent). The researchers found that recycling laws and incentives for recycling, such as deposit returns, are more effective in changing non-recyclers into committed recyclers. The average number of bottles out of 10 that are recycled rises from 4.38 in states with no effective recycling law and no water bottle deposit law to 6.10 if the state has an effective recycling law and 8.34 if the state also has a water bottle deposit law. In this case, strong recycling laws and water bottle deposits are effective in transforming people from non-recyclers to diligent recyclers.
Other financial incentives or disincentives, as the case may be, are also effective to influence behavior. The GAO found that charging residents a waste disposal fee based on the size of the trash container could positively affect the amount of material recycled. The Environmental Protection Agency cites several examples of pay-as-you-throw (PAYT) programs which require customers to pay for trash collection based on the frequency of collection needed.
People are motivated to recycle by actual pressure they receive from family and friends to do so. Furthermore, simply knowing that family, friends and neighbors recycle increases the likelihood of recycling. In a GfK Custom Research North America survey conducted for SC Johnson, 26 percent said “seeing people I know taking action,” is a major influence on their behavior to help the environment.
Concern for the environment is also a strong influence in recycling behavior. The GfK study reports 75 percent of Americans say they feel good when they take steps to help the environment. The more recycling is seen as effective, the more likely people are to participate, or to participate more fully. When members of focus groups in Waltham, Massachusetts were asked what would be most likely to motivate residents of the City to recycle, both recyclers and non-recyclers indicated that feedback from the City on the amount recycled and money saved would be motivational.
In a study of recycling motivations across four Illinois communities, Vining, Linn and Burdge found altruistic reasons for recycling were the only similarity across all four. Altruism was also perceived to be the most important reason for recycling by respondents from all communities. The results of this study support the notion that convenient, voluntary recycling programs that rely on environmental concern and conscience for motivation are useful approaches to influencing behavior.
Effective communication can improve the chances that recycling information will be absorbed and acted upon. All the coordinators interviewed by the GAO utilized mass media to educate the public about recycling. Several communities offer recycling education programs in their school systems. The GAO noted several studies that correlated public education with higher recycling rates. One academic study cited found that cities that held meetings with neighborhood or community groups on how, when and where to recycle had higher levels of recycling participation than cities that did not.
Influencing consumers to make positive environmental change is possible, but putting thoughts into action has been elusive for many. As the instances above show, Americans are willing to incorporate recycling into their lifestyles where it makes practical and financial sense. Programs must be customized to fit specific situations in which they are implemented. Appealing to key motivators will encourage environmentally friendly behavior, but it will require an ongoing, concerted effort by all organizations involved to engage a majority of consumers in consistent recycling.