There is a large body of research looking at the question of why we do or don’t recycle. While the results of this research vary widely, a few key things emerge.
Firstly, our attitude toward the environment is not a big factor in whether or not we recycle. For example, a Portuguese study into the topic concluded that “recycling behaviour is not determined by citizens’ general ideological position toward environmental issues”.
This is thought to be partly because recycling is generally quite easy, so it does not require a strong ethical or moral obligation to engage in the behaviour. A Swedish study decided to differentiate between easy and difficult recycling behaviours and found that those with green attitudes were more likely to take on the behaviours which required a degree of effort, but that there was no difference for low-effort behaviours. So basically, you have to be fairly committed to the cause to go out of your way to recycle. But if you don’t have to go out of your way, then it doesn’t matter how ideologically committed you are.
Given that environmental attitudes are not a predictor of recycling behaviour, what are the factors that do make a difference?
While our attitude toward the environment is not so important, our attitude toward recycling specifically is important. Those who feel recycling does make a difference, feel confident and clear about what and how to recycle, and believe that it is not too much effort, are found to recycle most.
In particular, perceived convenience is a strong predictor of recycling behaviour. In an article discussing the motives for recycling, Ewing states that “Evidence suggests that the amount consumers engage in environmentally benign behaviour is an inverse function of the effort or inconvenience involved and a direct function of the personal benefit expected”.
Confidence in our knowledge and skills also influences our propensity to recycle. Another Portuguese study was among many that found knowledge forms a large part of “perceived behavioural control”, something which in turn makes us more likely to recycle.
Another major driver of recycling behaviour is perceived norms. This refers to our belief of the right thing to do (personal norms) as well as our perception about what everyone else is doing (social norms). In fact, it has been shown that the latter can influence the former – that our view of the right thing to do can be shaped by observing others. A 2007 UK study was among many who have found that recycling is a highly normative behaviour , as opposed to reducing our consumption and re-using products, which are driven more by values, knowledge and concerns.
Closely related to social norms is the concept of modelling – the influence of seeing someone else demonstrate a behaviour. A revealing study into the disposal of food waste in food courts and fast food outlets found that the example set by actors planted by the researchers led to a large increase in customers choosing to place their waste in the composting bin. By contrast, the presence of a sign on each table urging people to compost made no difference.
Given that there are a number of different drivers of recycling behaviour, it is hard to know where to start in attempting to influence its uptake and increase. This challenge is emphasised even more in a study by Spanish researchers, who draw the distinction between a number of roles in the recycling process, including that of the influencer, the initiator, the decision maker and the vendor (the person responsible for transporting the waste to the collection points). They found that each have may distinct motives – for instance, the influencer is motivated by ecological concerns, whereas the vendor is worried about convenience. The researchers go on to advocate a marketing segmentation-type approach to promoting recycling, with a different message for each of the roles.
In conclusion, a review of the research emphasises the need to bear in mind the following points when promoting conscientious waste disposal
- research your target audience, to understand their views, motives, perceptions and barriers with relation to the behaviour you are promoting
- ensure that the desired behaviour is as convenient and interference- free as possible
- ensure information and instructions are accessible, clear and unambiguous
- foster a sense that the behaviour is the norm by role modelling, emphasising the social imperative and also reporting successes, increases in behaviour, and environmental outcomes
Awake provides psychology-based tools and services which support organisations and communities to develop a culture of sustainability. Visit www.awake.com.au for more info