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The Role of Influencing Human Behavior to Drive a Circular Economy

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The Recycling Partnership (TRP), a national nonprofit committed to improving recycling has released a new white paper titled, “Start at the Cart™: Key Concepts for Influencing Behavior to Drive a Circular Economy.” The paper offers insights on human-behavioral concepts and how to leverage them to successfully drive recycling actions and habits.

First, the paper observes that, “Like other behaviors…recycling behaviors are learned, adopted, prioritized, forgotten or overridden, restarted or remembered. Behaviors shift and evolve and devolve based on conditions and influences.” In other words, people and the decisions they make are shaped by many fixed and changing factors, all day every day. But, while there is no “one-size-fits-all” solution that will turn everyone into a “better” recycler, there is “a growing need and opportunity to connect people’s values to proper and repeated recycling behaviors and positive habits that can be repeated and eventually become natural.”

The paper then goes on to discuss the “three stages” of influencing recycling behavior: infrastructure (the conditions that shape the opportunity and ability to recycle), knowledge (the specific information about what, when, and how to recycle), and engagement (“Can the person see or imagine themselves and their peers doing the recycling behaviors,” and do these behaviors align with their values?).

Key points related to each stage are as follows:

  • The most successful infrastructure scenarios for positive recycling behaviors happen when the desired behavior is made an easy action, less reliant on personal investment, motivation, and choice. 
  • The most successful scenarios for positive recycling knowledge happen when guidance is available at the point that the recycling behavior must happen—and helpful, customized feedback happens when a mistake is made. 
  • TRP research confirms that recycling has links to a variety of values and we see an increase in interest (engagement) as people identify for themselves where recycling is a match for their values.

This work reminds readers that awareness about how, when, and where to recycle is critical—and many municipalities may benefit by increased messaging—but increased awareness does not always drive behavior change. “It is not enough to ask people to do better,” the authors note. Instead, a recycling-related request must be “specific, concise, and clear.” For instance, a call to “recycle right” will not yield specific behaviors, whereas a call to keep diapers out of recycling is clear, and more likely to lead to the desired behavior. The paper offers a framework on how to educate for better behavior and reminds readers of the free resources available through TRP.

The paper goes on to talk about the key measures of recycling behavior—because,  “to influence and ideally change behavior, measurement and data are essential.” The three metrics used most commonly are: participation rates, capture rates, and contamination rates. But, the authors remind readers that data doesn’t capture “underlying dynamics or barriers.” So a simple high-level metric is not enough to truly understand what is happening within a community or program. “Ask the question: Do people have the tools – the recycling container and information – they need in order to recycle? What looks like resistance, may also be a lack of ability, clarity, or true access.” In many cases, there is a need to better understand the “audience” that a recycling program is serving—and, once this happens (through investigation and research), resources and information can be tailored accordingly to meet the needs and interests of a particular subgroup or community. Building relationships and trust are critical.  

Overall, what is most needed, the authors assert, is a system of messaging that is based in behavioral science, data-backed, and includes standards and resources that are measurable and easy to adapt to “meet people where they are and influence them from messengers they trust.” 

Recycling is “an ever-moving stream of materials that adds up as a result of billions of decisions and actions, many of which are rooted in personal habits, values, or emotions.” And, through research and measurement, ideal behaviors can be effectively “instructed, prompted, and often entirely reset within your community.” Collective success depends on perpetual support for people to “accurately and automatically recycle.”


Download the report here.

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