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Factors that Impact Consumer Recycling Behaviour

By CSRWire Blogs

Submitted by Elisabeth Comere

According to a 2014 survey by Kelton Global, just half of Americans say they recycle 75% or more of their recyclable items and only 8% say they recycle all recyclables. With respect to packaging waste, the U.S. EPA’s most recent figures (2014) state that 51.5% of all packaging is recycled; however this includes transport packaging such as pallets, shrink wrap and corrugated cardboard generated in the commercial and institutional sector, which is recovered at a higher rate than household packaging.  It is estimated that the residential recycling rate is only 14%. Clearly there is room for improving the residential recycling rate, and this will be essential if society is to make the transition to a circular economy.

What motivates consumers to recycle and what deters them? What role can companies play in helping consumers be better informed and motivated when it comes to recycling?  

There are a number of studies that seek to identify and measure factors that impact recycling behaviours – both positively and negatively. Key factors include:

Ultimately, recycling is behaviour. It is important, therefore, to understand the factors affecting recycling behaviour and how we can address those factors to prompt desired behaviour changes.

Convenient Access to Recycling Opportunities

Inadequate and inconvenient access to recycling opportunities are primary impediments to recycling behaviour, for obvious reasons – consumers need a program to participate in and the likelihood of participating is contingent upon the level of convenience. The Sustainable Packaging Coalition’s recent survey of the availability of recycling opportunities found that 74% of U.S. households have access to curbside recycling, 21% have access to drop-off centers only, and 6% of U.S. households lack the opportunity to recycle. Equally significant is that, of the households with curbside recycling access, about a third must specifically request recycling service and often must pay extra to recycle. Consequently, approximately half of U.S. households need more convenient and accessible recycling service. In Canada recycling access is much more prevalent, but there are still gaps in rural areas as well as service to multi-family dwellings. There is substantial opportunity to improve recycling infrastructure to expand access to these underserved households, which would result in increasing recycling behaviour.   

Understanding How to Recycle

Participation in recycling can be confusing because information regarding accepted materials and instructions on how they should be prepared are inconsistent from one community to the next, and are often unclear as well as hard to find. Single-stream recycling has allowed for simpler instructions and enhanced convenience, but has also resulted in substantially higher contamination levels. While simpler recycling instructions may encourage participation, an increase in participation is only beneficial if the incoming material is accepted at the local recycling program and ultimately by the end markets that receive these materials. Excessive contamination wreaks havoc at the material recovery facility (MRF) and can negate the benefits of increased participation. Contamination rates of 16% are common for single-stream programs, and rates in many programs are even higher. This results in increased processing costs, increased costs of residue disposal, and sometimes, reduced material quality being delivered to end markets.  So, while expanding access and participation is important, it is also important to ensure recycling is done properly. The Recycling Partnership describes this as recycling “More Better.”

There is growing recognition of the need to develop consistent messaging about what is recyclable, as well as to clear up confusion about how to recycle. Examples include whether caps should be kept on containers and how plastic shopping bags should be recycled. While programs will continue to vary, one key strategy is “MRF harmonization” – having all communities supplying a particular MRF include the same materials in their programs, and use the same descriptions of what is and is not acceptable recycling behaviour. Using consistent, clear graphics within the entire MRF-shed to indicate program materials can also reduce confusion, as can consistent color-coding of recycling and waste containers.

Individual Perceptions about the Importance of Recycling

While many recyclers are motivated to adopt recycling behaviours because they believe recycling is beneficial to the environment, quantifying the positive impacts of recycling is not enough to convince some consumers that recycling does make a difference and is a worthwhile behaviour to adopt. For many, there is an apparent disconnect between the individual’s recycling behaviour and positive environmental impacts. The positive impacts of recycling are not readily measurable in the short term, which further weakens the information feedback loop. If our actions have no discernible consequences, we are not motivated by consequences to continue or discontinue that behaviour.

As one example, greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions reduction related to recycling is an associated topic with a large disconnect between the action and the consequence. While consumers generally realize that GHG emissions are harmful, they may not realize that recycling can result in reduced GHG emissions. Furthermore, because consumers cannot see GHG emissions reductions, they cannot readily gauge how their recycling actions make a positive impact, and may therefore not be motivated to adopt that behaviour. Thus, a lack of feedback regarding the impacts of recycling perpetuates inaction.  

Surveys have found that while consumers may have a theoretical understanding of the benefits of recycling, those benefits don’t have a tangible impact on daily life – so good intentions don’t actually translate into good recycling behaviour. On the other hand, when a direct positive impact, such as lower garbage disposal costs, results from increased recycling, residents are often motivated to continue this behaviour.  A well-structured “pay-as-you-throw” (PAYT) user fee system for waste collection and recycling services – when paired with convenient recycling opportunities – is the single most impactful means of reducing waste and increasing recycling. PAYT practices are supported by the U.S. EPA and multiple state governments as well as many other organizations including industry groups such as the Carton Council and AMERIPEN. While hundreds of local governments have instituted PAYT programs, it is still a highly underutilized mechanism that is proven to be an effective means of boosting recycling participation and tonnage.

What is Industry’s Role?

While modifying consumer behaviour is challenging, it is critical to growing the circular economy. Retailers and brand owners are uniquely positioned to drive this behaviour change. Such companies already work to influence consumer purchasing behaviour. Therefore they have a good opportunity to encourage consumers to recycle materials at the end of their useful life. In addition, many packaging and product manufacturers seek recovered materials as feedstock.  Such companies have an opportunity to partner with their supply chain players to address materials quality concerns and other supply related needs. Some companies are in a position to take advantage of backhaul transportation efficiencies to return used materials to reuse, repair, or recycling opportunities. And packaging manufacturers, like Tetra Pak, can play a role via design for recyclability as well as working with others to promote recycling more and better.

The Recycling Partnership, for example, works to increase recycling access and convenience as well as identify, and promote the use of best practices regarding recycling-related programs and communications.  The Carton Council of which Tetra Pak is a member has been working to launch a national PAYT promotion campaign, starting with the southeastern United States in partnership with the Southeast Recycling Development Council (SERDC).  Additionally, groups like the Sustainable Packaging Coalition and the Carton Council are working to improve on-pack labeling to better inform consumers of what and how to recycle.

Opportunities for industry engagement to make a difference abound, however to date a relatively small number of industry participants have become involved in promoting and expanding recycling. What is needed now are more industry partners to step up to the plate and play an active role in boosting recycling program performance and help grow the circular economy. Through collective action we can, without question, move the recycling needle.