Bridging the Behavioral Gap for Recycling Success
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.
For some consumers, size may influence perceptions of value or recyclability. The larger the material, the less likely they will be to throw it away. For example, they may think twice about tossing a more substantial automotive battery into the trash believing that larger batteries may “need to be recycled.” In fact, the car battery has a higher likelihood of proper disposal—almost 99% are recycled (Green Car Reports)–compared to a small rechargeable battery, despite the fact that both contain potentially harmful toxins.
Frequency and Immediacy of Disposal
Thankfully, many recyclables have long, productive lives, which mean consumers may not often need to think about recycling certain products. Mattresses, carpet, rechargeable batteries and cellphones are good examples of materials that need attention once every two to 10 years, depending on use. Other recyclables, such as glass, plastic and aluminum cans, likely require daily interaction. When consumers purchase a can of soda, for example, they usually consume the beverage shortly thereafter, making this material almost immediately available for recycling.
Recycling, performed as a routine behavior, becomes a habit. It’s one of the reasons for such high numbers of people participating in recycling programs designed to collect and process glass and plastic drinking bottles. A 2012 IPSOS study, commissioned by Call2Recycle, revealed that 76% of American’s have recycled aluminum or steel cans, 72% have recycled plastic bottles and containers, while 71% recycled paper or cardboard (IPSOS).
Though people may not consciously realize it, their recycling behaviors are also influenced by whether a product is consumable or durable. And—if consumable—how quickly it is depleted and recycled. This is because recycling isn’t generally considered until a product needs to be disposed. With paint, as a case in point, there should be nothing left at the end of the paint job. If paint is leftover, the consumer must determine what–if anything–to do with the excess.
Durable goods are different. When consumers purchase a durable product, such as a cordless drill, they may understand and intend to recycle the drill and the battery when they are no longer operational. However, because this tool will last for many years, consumers aren’t immediately faced with the need to dispose of it. A durable product may require investigation of disposal options, which delays action. With this, good intentions fade, resulting in recyclables that are tossed into the trash or hoarded for lengthy amounts of time. The BAJ study found that, on average, products are hoarded twice as long as their lifecycle.1
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.
There are some successes with the “guilt + education” model. At some retail centers, for instance, consumers are invited to participate in recycling by helpful sales associates: “Can I take your old battery?” This timely question, asked at a moment when action is needed, prompts participation in recycling.
The right combination of knowledge, access and personal responsibility is the foundation needed to move from apathetic to active participant.
Carl Smith is CEO and President of Call2Recycle, North America’s first and largest consumer battery stewardship and recycling program. Smith leads the organization in its efforts to help preserve the environment through responsible recycling of batteries. With more than 322 million wireless devices (phones, tablets, and e-readers) in use in the U.S. alone—all powered by rechargeable batteries—recycling both the battery and the device are more important than ever before.
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