Bridging the Behavioral Gap for Recycling Success – Environmental Leader


The most challenging hurdle is apathy. When consumers feel disconnected from the benefits of environmentally responsible behaviors—or from the dangers present in its absence—it is easy to just not care. And those who believe their recycling efforts won’t make a difference may become apathetic or simply choose not to act.

Statistics bear this out, indicating that many people are consciously determined not to recycle. According to the 2012 Call2Recycle IPSOS survey, 25-30% of Americans claim they have not recycled aluminum cans, plastic bottles or cardboard in the last year.3 With more than 312.8million Americans (U.S. News and World Report), this means that approximately 78 to 93 million people do not participate in some of the easiest forms of recycling.

Looking at this example further, if these people choose to not participate with convenient recycling options, how can it be expected that inconvenient items such as rechargeable batteries, thermostats or even plastic grocery bags would be disposed of properly? An increase in “easy” options may be helpful to many, but it doesn’t solve the greater issue.

The Solution: Doing the Right Thing by Accepting Responsibility

Individually and cumulatively, these barriers stand in the way of increased participation in recycling programs around the world. Remediating these is the linchpin to diverting increased volumes of recyclables and potentially harmful materials from landfills. But how?

With physical barriers, accessibility can be increased and awareness of new recycling options can be raised, which may result in tangible improvements. In this sense, overcoming physical barriers may be easier than overcoming behavioral barriers.

The “fix” would appear to be simple enough: a combination of public education efforts to inspire and encourage those that are relatively inexperienced with recycling but have an interest in improving their efforts. However, those folks who are predisposed to NOT recycle may never participate, regardless of how often they may see or hear a recycling message.

The US EPA, state governments and product stewardship groups have spent millions of dollars on recycling education programs throughout the last few decades, yet the percentage of citizens who recycle even minimally can still be improved.

The solution lies in accepting responsibility to do the right thing.

The most effective way to affect change in personal ownership is a combination of education and guilt. Guilt (and a little positive encouragement) changes behavior. It is known that guilt can be a great motivator for environmentally responsible behavior. The Green Guilt survey also showed that 29% of Americans admit to suffering from “green guilt,” defined as the knowledge that you could and should be doing more to help preserve the environment. The findings also show that Americans increasingly feel an obligation to recycle.

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