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Behavior Change
Behavior Change Research Shows How to Spur Consumer Recycling, Reduce Contamination

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 percent of US consumers strongly believe in recycling, contamination (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 align 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 literature review 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 messenger:

Collection

There is more to consider in collection beyond the binary of whether someone has somewhere to put his/her recycling.

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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 percent.

  • 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.

The message

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 study 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 by 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 likely 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 in another study, 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 analysis of Minnesota counties found that having an ordinance making recycling compulsory increased the rate of recycling by 4.16 percent.

  • Transformation potential: Research 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 tailgate, 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 Forever™,” which is used on metal cans globally.

The messenger

Recycling messages coming from a trusted source or peers are more effective.

  • Social influence: A meta-analysis 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.

  • Family: Family 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 showed 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 study found 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 perceived 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 more likely 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 norms and culture also impact recycling behavior.

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 right will be difficult, and doing so will require the use of the above best practices, likely for an extended period; but a recent examination suggests that the cost 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.

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