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Recycling Is Power — Start at the Cart™

Part math problem and part unrealized social impact, recycling is at a tipping point. While there are critical system improvements to be made, in the end, success depends on millions of small decisions and actions by people.

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Anyone putting items into a shopping cart or an online checkout has the power to contribute to a greater good. Recycling is abstract. It is regarded as “the great away.” Things go to the curb and are whisked away. The next “invisible” steps sort and process very real tons of materials. The abstract nature of the events often means individual actors don’t fully grasp the importance of their choices and the fact that everything leaving homes is adding up either in good ways or in very wasteful ways.

The math:

  • Every American household has, on average, the potential to keep 800 pounds of bottles, cans, paper and boxes recyclables out of the landfill every year.
  • More people equal more stuff.
  • Household waste and recycling has risen during COVID-19 since everyone spends the majority of their time at home.

Recycling programs are averaging 17 percent contamination rates — meaning as many as one out of every five things in recycling containers belongs in trash or donation paths, not the recycling.

The sentiment and social impact:

  • Nearly everyone believes in recycling. Eighty-five percent of 2,000 Americans recently surveyed strongly believe in recycling and believe it is worth the effort.
  • The same number of people report they are more conscious of supporting green companies than they were five years ago.
  • Two out of three people would think less of someone who was wasteful and didn’t recycle.
  • Seventy percent believe we are wasting valuable time in reducing the impact of human activity on the environment.

Unlike other actions for social impact like pledges or fundraisers or voting, recycling happens all day, every day. It is an ever-moving stream of materials. In order for recycling to succeed, the public needs access and perpetual support along with education and prompts to influence correct decisions and actions.

Since day one, The Recycling Partnership has focused on thoughtful human-centered approaches and tactical system solutions. The new white paper, Start at the Cart™: Key Concepts for Influencing Behavior to Drive a Circular Economy is an introduction that puts a behavioral lens on community engagement efforts to help communities, guided by data and experience, to measurably influence community behaviors that underpin recycling’s impact and results.

Changing, or even influencing, behavior is not always easy or fast, but luckily our research continues to confirm people want to recycle, and we continue to provide data-backed solutions. Behavior change will continue to be a challenge, but together with infrastructure, education and engagement, we can better support individuals.

Start at the Cart™: Key Concepts for Influencing Behavior to Drive a Circular Economy looks at what precedes recycling behaviors and our stage-gated process for planning behavior change tactics and gives a solid foundation on the three stage gates for influencing behavior — infrastructure, knowledge and engagement — and links these key concepts to evidence.

Main Takeaways

  • There are three stage gates to influence recycling behavior: infrastructure/conditions, education/knowledge, engagement/social/cultural.
  • Awareness does not always influence behavior.
  • Don’t make assumptions about your audience. Better understand the audience.
  • Investigate the issue, tackle one behavior at a time.
  • Communications needs to be reliable and on point, meet the needs of your community.
  • Give your communications a job, set it up to win and measure it.
  • Build relationships and trust.

Looking for free tools and resources that are easily customizable for your community? Check out our newly updated DIYSigns, campaign builder and social media toolkit today, and stay connected as we continue to release behavioral insights and tools.

The Recycling Partnership is the action agent transforming the U.S. residential recycling system for good. Our team operates at every level of the recycling value chain and works on the ground with thousands of communities to transform underperforming recycling programs and tackles circular economy challenges. As the leading organization in the country that engages the full recycling supply chain from working with companies to making their packaging more recyclable and helping them meet their climate and sustainability goals to working with government to develop the policy solutions that will address the systemic needs of the U.S. recycling system, The Recycling Partnership positively impacts recycling at every step in the process. Since 2014, the nonprofit change agent diverted 230 million pounds of new recyclables from landfills, saved 465 million gallons of water, avoided more than 250,000 metric tons of greenhouse gases and drove significant reductions in targeted contamination rates. Learn more at recyclingpartnership.org.
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