Increasing recycling behavior through community based social marketing

As with other initiatives that require community participation, there must be an attempt to educate, inform and involve the public in order to increase recycling behavior. Many recycling schemes appear to have been implemented on the ‘build it and they will come’ philosophy.  Successful programs, however, will put a significant amount of effort into education and outreach. 

“Success of any recycling program hinges on the support of local residents….Without behavior change on the part of community residents, the program will fail” (Tabanico & Schultz).   

Education Campaigns

Education campaigns are a common tactic used to increase recycling participation.  The assumption is that people do not participate based on lack of knowledge about the program. 

This has been proven to be largely untrue.  There is ample research showing that education in and of itself does not stimulate behavior since it focuses on information rather than on motivations (Barr & Gilg; Tabanico and Schultz).  These campaigns are most effective when launching a new program or when there is a change to an existing program (Tabanico & Schultz). 

“While knowledge is not sufficient by itself to motivate behavior, lack of knowledge can be a barrier to action” (Tabanico & Schultz).

Awareness Campaigns

Awareness campaigns are another common technique used to stimulate recycling participation. 

“The assumption is that presenting alarmingly high severity statistics (e.g. 80 percent of what Americans throw away is recyclable) will lead to heightened concern and subsequently to a change in behavior” (Tabanico & Schultz). 

The problem is that people tend to change their behavior in the direction of the norm.  Pointing out that large numbers of people are not recycling promotes this behavior as the standard and may have the opposite effect of that which was intended.  For awareness campaigns to have a positive effect they must focus on the desired action, rather than on how few people actually exhibit the behavior.

Both education and awareness campaigns can be employed as part of an effective outreach campaign, but it is important to note that the timing of these interventions is critical to their success, and that any effect will tend to be short-lived.  Most of these efforts use traditional marketing techniques which view recycling as a commodity to be sold to the household.  While these techniques may be effective at inducing households to choose one provider over another (a brand so to speak), they are not effective at changing behavior. 

Community Based Social Marketing (CBSM)

An alternative to education and awareness campaigns is Community Based Social Marketing, or CBSM. 

Community-Based Social Marketing begins with the selection of a specific target behavior and then uses a four step process to foster sustainable behavior change.  These four steps are:

  1. Identifying the barriers to a targeted behavior.
  2. Using behavior change tools to overcome the barriers.
  3. Piloting the selected tools using empirical research methodology and a control group.
  4. Evaluating the project once it has been widely implemented (Tabanico & Schultz).

CBSM is more effective than other marketing techniques because it focuses on a single activity.  Targeting one desired behavior has a greater impact than providing people with a “laundry list” of things to do.  Additionally, CBSM uncovers the barriers to the target behavior, which is critical to future change. 

“Without detailed knowledge of barriers, it is highly unlikely that an effective strategy can be developed” (McKenzie-Mohr).

Once the barriers are identified a strategy can be developed to overcome them, and that strategy can then be piloted and evaluated.  This is a far more comprehensive technique than simply putting out promotional materials that encourage people to ‘reduce, reuse, recycle’. 

This recycling container sticker by Sonoma County, California makes it significantly easier to remember what to recycle by grouping items (e.g., Cans & foil, Paper, etc.) and using pictures to depict the items that are recyclable. Note that using the pictures can also assist in addressing literacy issues. © Sonoma County, courtesy of

 For more information on Community Based Social Marketing visit


Barr, S., & Gilg, A. W. (2007). A conceptual framework for understanding and analyzing attitudes towards environmental behaviour. Geografiska Annaler Series B: Human Geography, 89(4), 361-379.

McKenzie-Mohr, D. (2000). Promoting sustainable behavior: an introduction to community-based social marketing. Journal of Social Issues, 56(3), 543-554.

Tabanico, J. J., & Schultz, P. W. (2007, August). Community-based social marketing. BioCycle, 48(8), 41-44.

Got something to add? Feel free to chime in!

  1. Pingback: Delhi promotes eco-awareness through CBSM campaigns | Tips For Recycling