Scott Breen Gina Miklasz and Colleen Woodruff
Published 1 year ago.
About a 9 minute read.
Image: The Recycling Partnership/Facebook
Even when effective collection, messages and messenger are skillfully deployed, there are still factors that complicate consumer recycling behavior.
The frustrating sight of recyclables bagged up or the wrong items present in a
recycling bin is becoming increasingly common. While 85
of US consumers strongly believe in recycling,
(i.e., unacceptable materials in the recycling stream) is plaguing the US
recycling system as it can slow down the sortation process, lead to rejected
loads and result in dirty bales that are less valuable. Getting people’s
behavior to better
with their values is critical to a healthy recycling system. This article seeks
to fill a gap in the literature by distilling various research that offers
insights on how to achieve more and correct recycling.
There are many mediums through which consumers get recycling information —
including on-pack messaging, municipal websites and labels on recycling bins.
Unfortunately, recycling education often falls short, as these programs are
commonly underfunded. The Recycling Partnership’s (TRP) 2020 State of Curbside report found that
of the communities analyzed, only 51 percent had an outreach budget for
recycling; in those communities, the average annual budget for such outreach was
only $1.16 per household. In addition, there is often little space on packaging
devoted to recycling information; and there are only fleeting seconds to capture
the consumer’s attention. Given these realities, it’s critical that recycling
messages to residents and consumers employ behavior-change best practices.
The Can Manufacturers Institute (CMI), which
represents US metal can manufacturers and their suppliers, commissioned a
in 2020 on recycling behavior change that provides a comprehensive overview of
the available research. Within this literature review; TRP’s
influencing-behavior best practices report, Start at the Cart;
and other recent works are some of the following approaches to induce positive
recycling behavior within the topic areas of collection, the message and the
There is more to
in collection beyond the binary of whether someone has somewhere to put his/her
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Bin design: In one
study, two sets
of three bins were placed throughout an academic building. One set had no
lids, while the other had specialized recycling lids including a flap lid
for trash, a lid with a 6-inch hole for recyclables and a lid with a narrow
slit for paper. The shaped lids increased proper recycling by 34 percent and
reduced the amount of contaminants entering the recycling stream by 95
In-home recycling receptacles: CMI commissioned in-home observations of
recyclers by global communications firm Hill +
Knowlton (H+K), to gain insights on
how to transform inconsistent recyclers into consistent recyclers. A
takeaway was the importance of in-home recycling receptacles. Individuals
who had access to curbside service were more likely to dispose of
recyclables in their trash if they did not have at-home recycling bins or
had small ones that filled up quickly.
Convenient collection: H+K
also conducted a national survey of Americans; 54 percent cited reasons
related to laziness for why they do not recycle.
Positivity, personalizing the product, making the impact more present, providing
incentives and emphasizing the transformation of the material were all found to
potentially lead to higher recycling.
Positivity: An early
authored by Professor of Marketing Kenneth Lord found that positively
framed messages (e.g., benefits associated with recycling compliance) led to
more confident attitudes toward recycling. Positive messaging is used
CLYNK — a company that connects celebratory messaging, such as “good
job,” with educational facts and materials in its digital accounts for “bag
drop” redemption in deposit systems. CLYNK makes these messages more
engaging with gamification, such as digital badges, that congratulate users
when they reach the top 10 percent of recyclers in their system. Still,
Lord’s research findings are mixed on this point — he also concluded the
greatest increase in recycling behavior came from a negatively framed
message delivered by a personal acquaintance. Further, 2021
research in China
determined that negative frames are more effective in convincing consumers
to purchase recycling-aiding products (e.g., bins).
Personalization: One study demonstrated that people were more
to recycle when their name was linked to the cup. The same was true if the
cup portrayed an image of their national flag.
Temporality: One Canadian
study looked at the
recycling intention of undergraduate students when shown messaging with
“Recycle for a better Calgary today” versus “Recycle for a better Calgary
tomorrow.” Interestingly, the more proximate "today” worked best with
messaging around what people had to lose by not recycling while the more
distant "tomorrow” wording was most effective when combined with messaging
around what people had to gain by recycling.
Incentives/penalties: One early
study comparing recyclers to
non-recyclers found financial incentives were particularly important for
non-recyclers. Cash was found to be the best motivator of recycling behavior
which also concluded variable incentives are more effective than fixed. Yet
another study found
that informational programs had more long-term effects than incentive
programs, although both were effective. Penalties, as opposed to incentives,
also work. An
of Minnesota counties found that having an ordinance making recycling
compulsory increased the rate of recycling by 4.16 percent.
from professors at Boston College, Penn State and State University
of New York at New Paltz showed through field studies that emphasizing the
transformational nature of the material leads to higher recycling rates. One
example in the research is that at a football
half of the volunteers highlighted to tailgaters what the recyclables would
turn into while the other half simply explained what was recyclable. Those
who were given the transformation message recycled over half of their
discards, while those who received the informational message recycled less
than a fifth. One on-package message that effectively highlights
transformation potential of the material is the phrase, “Metal Recycles
which is used on metal cans globally.
coming from a trusted source or
are more effective.
of 29 studies determined that social influence (i.e., what other people do
or think) is effective at encouraging resource conservation when compared to
a control group. This may be why Keep America Beautiful, in a recent
public service announcement,
has squirrels watching people not recycling and openly judging them for it
with light humor.
members recycling was identified as a highly influential factor in a 2021
study of questionnaire responses
of Greek elementary school students.
Credibility: Households receiving three kinds of messaging from Boy
Scouts — which the researchers deemed a trusted source — all
an increase in household recycling behavior, compared to the control group
that received no messaging.
Even in the case that effective collection, messages and messenger are
skillfully deployed, there are still factors that complicate consumer recycling
behavior. The message and approach may need to differ when people are away from
home, or the people being engaged are tourists. One
at-home recyclers were less likely to recycle on vacation. Another issue is the
state of the recyclable after consumption. For example, dented cans were
to be damaged and more likely to be put in the garbage. Recycling behavior is
also affected by the attributes of an individual’s physical location. People are
to litter in an environment that already has litter present versus a clean
environment — with up to 2-3 times more litter occurring in dirty environments.
Regional rules, social
Given the many factors that affect consumer recycling behavior and the disparity
in the effectiveness of messaging tactics, simply increasing the quantity of
messaging is not sufficient to increase recycling. TRP’s Start at the Cart
report says there are three stages of influencing recycling behavior —
infrastructure, knowledge and engagement. Specific to the difficulties around
knowledge and engagement, a
report from the Solid
Waste Association of North America’s Applied Research Foundation found
that the percentage of “under performers” (households with contamination rates
above 25 percent) in central Ohio unexpectedly increased five percentage
points after an extensive outreach campaign during a switch from bin to carts.
Notwithstanding those that do not participate in recycling at all, changing the
behavior of those who recycle poorly to habitually do it
will be difficult, and doing so will require the use of the above best
practices, likely for an extended
but a recent
suggests that the
of changing recycling behavior is worth it.
Consumers goods companies, local recycling coordinators, recycling haulers and
others can aid in the fight against contamination by utilizing the insights from
recycling behavior change literature. With consistent, effective communications,
incorrect recycling behavior and the frustration that comes from observing it
can dissipate, improving the health of the recycling system.
Published Mar 29, 2022 2pm EDT / 11am PDT / 7pm BST / 8pm CEST
Scott Breen is VP of Sustainability at the Can Manufacturers Institute. He has a unique background with policy and legal training; deep knowledge of sustainability and the circular economy; and experience in project management, stakeholder engagement, and communications.
Gina Miklasz is an Ingredient Buyer at John B. Sanfilippo & Son, Inc. Prior to that, she was a Sustainability Communications Intern at the Can Manufacturing Institute.
Colleen Woodruff is an MEM/MBA Student at Duke University. In fall of 2021, she served as Sustainability Communications Graduate Intern at the Can Manufacturers Institute.