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Convenience in residential recycling: How important is ease of use?

One of the primary barriers to household recycling is convenience; the amount of effort involved in washing and separating materials, transporting materials to drop off centers, the need for storage space in the home and loss of leisure time.  The US EPA advocates building convenience into a recycling program to promote participation.

Residents are more likely to participate if set-out requirements are uncomplicated and recyclables collection is frequent.  Providing adequate containers for material storage and set-out also improves convenience. Providing both curbside collection and drop-off sites for materials gives residents more recycling options (US EPA, 1999).

 But how important is convenience in comparison to other factors?  The answer lies in the level of commitment of the individual recycler.

Individuals who exhibit a high level of environmental concern are willing to expend more effort on recycling activities. P. Wesley Schulz and Stuart Oskamp studied this relationship and found environmental concern to be strongly correlated with willingness to expend effort in a paper recycling experiment among college students. 

When the amount of effort required to recycle is high, only people with strong pro-environmental attitudes are likely to do so.  When the amount of effort required to recycle is low, however, a small or moderate environmental concern may provide enough impetus to produce the behavior.

Other studies suggest that even when environmental concern is high it may not translate into pro-environmental behaviors. 

Research to date has shown general environmental attitudes, such as environmental concern, to be poor predictors of behavior (Shades of Green, 2005). 

One possible explanation is that other concerns (i.e. household economics) take precedence over environmental interests.  Abraham Maslow’s well-known Hierarchy of Needs theory supports this view; people must contend with basic survival issues before they can address the need for self-fulfilling activities.  If the household is having difficulty putting food on the table, recycling is unlikely to be a priority. 

Another explanation is that environmental concern does not translate into action without a sense of empowerment; that is, a feeling that the actions taken actually have an effect on the outcome (Shades of Green, 2005).  If people do not feel that their contribution to the recycling effort makes a difference then they are unlikely to engage in the activity.  This is particularly true of people who feel that the amount of material they recycle is insignificant.  It is also a contributing factor in discouraging participation for those residents who live in an area where few of their neighbors recycle.

Given that low environmental concern is an impediment to recycling when a high degree of effort is involved, and that even high environmental concern cannot be relied upon as a catalyst for recycling, building convenience into a program is a critical factor in stimulating participation. Recycling behavior is largely governed by these logistical concerns. 

Any inconvenience arising through scheme design should be identified and eliminated if non-participants are to be persuaded to engage in recycling (PJ Shaw, 2007). 

Strategies to improve the convenience of a recycling program include:

  • Providing multiple drop-off centers that are easily accessible.
  • Implementing curbside collection.
  • Providing households with collection bins in multiple sizes.
  • Collecting a wide variety of materials.
  • Synchronizing refuse and recycling collection times to fall on the same day.
  • Holding special recycling events for difficult-to-recycle items such as tires and electronics. 

The research correlating convenience and recycling rates is indisputable.  While ease of use may not be the overriding factor for individuals who already possess a high degree of motivation, it can prove to be a significant barrier to non-recyclers.  Particularly in communities where recycling participation is low, the convenience of the program should be evaluated and improved where feasible.



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One Comment

  1. Posted December 14, 2011 at 2:56 am | Permalink

    Full of salient points. Don’t stop believing or wirting!

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