In the environmental and product stewardship industry, there is a lot of talk about the barriers that stand in the way of really successful recycling in product take-back programs. Physical barriers, like accessibility and product design, present significant and well-documented hurdles. The not-so-tangible, seldom-discussed consumer behavioral barriers present a special challenge to those of us who are in the business of moving people toward more sustainable, environmentally responsible behaviors.
While there are myriad disconnects related to recycling that can be tagged as consumer behavior barriers, most can be grouped into three categories: perceived value, frequency and immediacy of recycling activity, and apathy.
Because behavioral issues are inherently consumer-based, identifying and defining the sensibilities and attitudes that hinder the end user from participating in recycling is an important first step.
Perception is reality. The perceived value of a product can determine many aspects of its lifecycle, from how long it is kept to how it is disposed. Not surprisingly, more expensive products are perceived as “more valuable” and less disposable, even at the end of their usable life.
Conversely, with access to internationally produced, wallet-friendly electronic gadgets, consumers can purchase products at cheap—even disposable—price points. “At this price, if it breaks, we can just get another.” Are these low-cost products worthy of being recycled or passed along or are they simply trashed?
A study conducted by the Battery Association of Japan (BAJ) reveals that consumers are resistant to get rid of expensive products like digital cameras and notebook computers that are easy to stash away at home (ICBR presentation Sept. 12, 2013 by Mike Takao, Panasonic Corp. & Battery Association of Japan). The practice extends beyond just the device. The study also found that small rechargeable batteries have a fairly long hoarding trend, with impressive disposal terms ranging from three years to 16 years.
Call2Recycle—North America’s first and largest consumer battery stewardship and recycling program—found similar results in a 2012 Green Guilt survey, which revealed that 57% of Americans have old electronics that they need to dispose of or discard. These may be set aside as a potential backup for newer equipment or passed along to someone else. Owners who save their expensive items for a “rainy day” may end up hoarding a drawer or closet full of obsolete products. Recipients of older, pass-along products may be less aware of the products’ recyclability or they may not be as willing to recycle at all.