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Increasing recycling behavior: Use a 'sticker of shame'? | Tips For Recycling
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Increasing recycling behavior: Use a ‘sticker of shame’?

There are many strategies for increasing recycling behavior in a residential program. Pay as you throw disposal systems, recycling incentives and mandatory recycling are techniques often employed.

Officials in Revelstoke, British Columbia, have a different idea. Revelstoke recently launched a curbside recycling program. Previously residents were provided with recycling bins in which to collect their materials for transport to the local recycling depot. Under the new curbside program, residents must purchase clear blue recycling bags to collect their recyclables and place at the curb for pickup (they may also use other clear plastic bags). The key is that the hauler can see what’s in the bag before removing it from the curb.

Here’s where the ‘sticker of shame’ comes in. Haulers can see if there are prohibited items in the recycling bags. If unapproved items are in the bag, it gets a sticker and it’s left at the curb for all the neighbors to see.

The idea of shaming people into recycling is not entirely new. There have been many behavior studies that focus on the impact of ‘peer pressure’ on our every day activities, including the fear of social sanctions. But the idea has always been to increase the visiblity of recycling programs to make non-recyclers feel pressured to participate. If people see the majority of their neighbors putting a recycling bin at the curb on collection day, they will feel that this is the societal expectation, and therefore will engage in the activity themselves.

The idea of branding people with a ‘sticker of shame’ goes another step further. But will it work? Our response to societal norms is rarely so overt. We respond to perceived expectations, but the idea that people will conform to behaviors as a result of being labeled is somewhat archaic. Not since the days of marking adulterers with a ‘scarlett letter’ have we seen social badges of this sort. This is somewhat akin to making Jews wear arm bands in World War II Germany.  This is, of course, far less objectionable, but it is intended to make people conform or be marked as ‘undesireable’ elements in our society.

The ‘sticker of shame’ is more likely to generate backlash than conformity. Mandatory recycling has been slow to take hold in the U.S. because as a society we object to being told how to live our lives. The idea that we would accept being ‘shamed’ into recycling by our government is far fetched. It would be more likely to generate resentment and letters to editors and councilmen.

I’m all for increasing our recycling rates. But let’s promote why recycling is important, and make it easy to participate. Mandatory recycling laws can benefit as well. But I stop short at making a public example of those who don’t comply.

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