Ask consumers why they don’t recycle and the number one complaint is simple: It’s inconvenient. You have to collect it. You have to store it. If it isn’t paper, glass, aluminum or recycled curbside, you have to haul it somewhere. For recyclables that aren’t part of a curbside recycling program, action requires a commitment of time and effort.
But change may be on the way. In a recent online Nielsen survey of 6,000 North American consumers, the respondents who didn’t recycle regularly indicated that they would if it was more convenient. The survey, commissioned by Call2Recycle® North America’s first and largest consumer battery stewardship program, also confirmed progress in the adoption of battery recycling, with more than half of respondents professing awareness of battery programs. Making battery recycling convenient for people throughout North America has been a primary focus for Call2Recycle for the past two decades.
Recycling Continues to Gain Traction
It’s no mistake: the recycling mindset continues to increase its foothold in North America. Nearly 6 out of 10 consumers said they recycle weekly or more and that recycling is the green behavior they do most frequently.
When it came to battery recycling, more than half of consumers indicated they were aware of battery recycling in their communities, but only 4 out of 10 classified themselves as battery recyclers. The top two reasons people said they didn’t recycle batteries was (1) It was easier to throw them away then recycle them and (2) they didn’t know where to go to recycle the batteries.
This confirms that battery recycling behavior is still evolving and much of its growth will be based on accessibility, or the access consumers have to places to recycle batteries at the end of their useful lives. Accessibility considers the following factors:
. Convenience/distance to nearest drop-off site
. No. of drop-off locations (within a reasonable distance)
. Visibility of the drop-off locations themselves (easy to identify/access and well-advertised)
. Variety of items available for recycling
Based on a study commissioned by Call2Recycle, it is estimated that more than 6.5 billion single-use and rechargeable batteries are sold annually in the U.S. (Kelleher Environmental, 2016). For the past two plus decades, Call2Recycle has relentlessly looked for ways to divert those batteries from the trash bin by improving accessibility and making it convenient for consumers to drop-off their batteries for recycling. While accessibility is a simple concept on the surface, it’s actually quite complex, involving many moving parts.
The Role of Convenience
Convenience is a top consideration when determining accessibility. Convenience involves the personal perception of consumers in both distance and ease of drop off. What’s convenient for one person may not be convenient to another when it comes to battery recycling.
Questions to ask when analyzing convenience include: Is curbside recycling available for that battery type? If not (as is mostly the case for rechargeable batteries), what are the options? How far do consumers have to travel to recycle their batteries? Do they have to drive to a household hazardous waste facility? Do nearby retailers offer collection? Can the consumer recycle other items? Can they recycle multiple types of batteries? How do consumers integrate battery recycling into their routines? We will explore these issues below.
Distance. Past Call2Recycle research has found that consumers are willing to drive up to 10 miles to recycle. However, the distance varies greatly by area. While 10 miles may be acceptable in a suburban or rural setting, it is not reasonable in a large urban area, such as NYC or LA. Using the 10-mile rule as a guide, Call2Recycle has created a network of more than 14,000 public drop off sites in North America, including retailers and local recycling centers. Currently, more than 87% of North American consumers have access to a public facing Call2Recycle drop-off site within a 10-mile radius. This is similar to the accessibility standards for other materials not recycled curbside, such as the plastic bags.
Point-of-purchase. Retailers/stores were cited as the primary source for learning about battery recycling by approximately a third of respondents. For both the U.S. and Canada, the top locations for battery recycling include municipal recycling depots/centers and retailers. So it follows that recycling behavior increases when there is a logical connection in the consumer’s mind between batteries and devices.
Because most rechargeable batteries are sold as part of products such as power tools, laptops or mobile phones, home improvement and electronics retailers are logical sites for convenient recycling. For primary batteries, logical recycling sites include supermarkets and drugstores. Over half of the consumers said they would be likely to participate in battery recycling if the drop-off location was where they shop for groceries (51%).
Visibility. Many large home improvement and electronics retail stores have embraced battery recycling as a value-added service to customers and a way to drive store traffic. They have found that recycling rates improve when properly designed, easy to use and well-labeled containers are displayed and the recycling location is clean, well-lit and appealing. Proper labels and signage not only raise visibility but ease confusion and encourage future recycling. Some big box stores such as Best Buy, The Home Depot, and Lowe’s have taken their recycling commitment one step further by merchandising their recycling programs with special areas at the store entrance.
Curbside. Curbside recycling, generally limited to plastics, aluminum, glass and paper, is the holy grail of accessibility. Materials collected curbside have a much higher recycling rate because the process is so convenient. Recycling rates for batteries, CFLs and electronics drop significantly because they are generally not recycled at the curb due to safety concerns. Almost 60% of survey respondents indicated they would be very or extremely likely to recycle batteries if their community offered this option as part of curbside pickup. Currently, this is generally limited to single-use batteries because of the special packaging required by the US DOT in shipping rechargeable batteries.
Multiple recyclables. Recycling rates also increase as the number of items being accepted for recycling increases. Overall 72% of US respondents indicated they recycled batteries along with other items because it was more convenient. It makes sense. The more items consumers can recycle in one place, the more likely they will make the drive to a recycling location. One-stop recycling depots/collection centers as well as municipal hazardous waste programs are popular ways to collect batteries, paint, CFLs, household cleaners, household chemicals, automotive liquids and mercury-containing thermometers among other things. In addition, single-use batteries are considered non-hazardous and can be recycled at a broader array of sites. On the downside, individual materials are harder to identify and sort, which reduces the economics of collecting a mix stream of recyclables.
Single-stream battery recycling. Nearly twice as many US consumers threw away single-use batteries than recycling them in the past year (60% vs. 31%). One reason? Lack of a US nationwide single-use battery recycling program. Only a patchwork of US jurisdictions offer single-use battery recycling because of the fees involved and the lack of a federal mandate. This contrasts to rechargeable battery recycling which is a direct result of a government mandate and is funded by industry stewards, including battery producers, through Call2Recycle. Widespread single-stream recycling would help improve accessibility by combining household battery recycling into a single program. However, the funding to achieve this remains a major hurdle.
Canada and Vermont are notable exceptions. Many Canadian provinces have mandates for single-use battery recycling; all provinces offer single-stream single-use and rechargeable battery recycling. Vermont launched mandatory single-use battery recycling funded by industry stewards in 2016; it had a rechargeable battery recycling program already in place. Jurisdictions that recycle both types of batteries generally see an overall increase in collections across both types. Without access to single-stream battery recycling, US consumers may be more inclined to throw batteries away than presort and transport them, regardless of how convenient it is.
Changing Consumer Behavior
Will consumer battery recycling behavior change overnight? Probably not. But there are reasons to be optimistic. In the survey, consumers indicated a willingness to change their behavior. This is especially true in urban areas, where consumers are more aware of and more likely to participate in battery recycling, primarily due to concerns about climate change / global warming. Rural consumers are more strongly motivated to recycle batteries to keep toxic materials out of landfills, according to the Nielsen survey.
Analyzing the survey data delivers insights into ways to change consumer behavior to increase recycling success. Call2Reycle is using the data to identify areas that are underserved or underutilized to guide where it invests its resources. When combined with demographic data, the results can be used to better understand what portions of the population are not recycling and target them with special communications.
Accessibility to consumers remains the lynchpin to recycling success. But the most exciting take-away from the Nielsen survey is that change is in the air. Inspiring consumers to take action to keep batteries out of the landfill and facilitate re-use of their byproducts in other products is a challenge we can all embrace on behalf of our environment.