Waste Wise

Naughty or Nice?

When one considers the implementation of a recycling program, the primary question centers around what tonnage of recyclables can be obtained and what the composition (e.g., paper, plastic, metal) may be, which then can be used to forecast revenues and costs. Municipalities and haulers may do some initial due diligence centered on expected volumes based on factors such as historical performance. Some characterization work may be done to identify the relative fractions of recyclable components in the waste. Such numbers are relatively easy to quantify or estimate within a reasonable degree of accuracy. Additionally, assumptions are typically made in regard to what one can expect in terms of participation and recycling rates.

However, when the question turns to how to increase recycling rates and/or recycling volume within the same service area, the conversation quickly turns to how to ‘get’ people to either recycle more materials or simply to participate in a program, which increases overall set-out rates. When you think about getting people to do anything you are talking about modifying human behavior that, hopefully, translates into a desirable action.

Human behavior is one of the primary factors that determine how successful a recycling program is. But it is also one of the most poorly understood facets of a recycling program. Why don’t some people participate? How can participation be increased? How can the volume of recycling be increased for the same number of households? Human behavior is the key to this.

Many municipal and private recycling program managers believe low recycling rates are due to a lack of knowledge. Thus, the basic assumption then is if knowledge about recycling is increased, this will translate into a change in behavior. Multiple studies have shown that indeed, there is a strong correlation between increased knowledge and behavior. But, the key question is: Does increased knowledge of recycling lead to a change in behavior? Several studies have shown that only slight increases in recycling rates were achieved through recycling education campaigns.

This may seem misleading, since earlier I noted that there is a correlation between knowledge and behavior. There is. But this research showed that information alone doesn’t cut it because information alone doesn’t address the motives behind why someone chooses to recycle or not. A lack of knowledge can be a barrier so information on recycling still must be provided. But it is the motivation or incentive to recycle that is the lynchpin when it comes to getting Joe Public to recycle more. These studies also identified four motivational factors associated with the level of participation in recycling:

  1. Benefits of recycling (i.e., the satisfaction derived by preserving natural resources, saving energy, diverting materials from landfills),
  2. Personal inconvenience (i.e., no space to put bins, difficulty in preparing materials),
  3. External pressure (i.e. friends/family members are doing it), and
  4. Financial motives (i.e. earn money, lower collection costs).

While many things are predictable in this world, the one thing that is commonly noted is that human behavior is “predictably unpredictable.” But, the work described suggests that being able to couple information about recycling with incentives (aka, motivation) may result in increased participation in recycling programs.

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