What motivates people to recycle?


Motivation is a complicated concept with many differing actors in play for each individuals motivation. however, it is agreed in the field of Psychology that the only thing that truly motivates people is an intrinsic reward. Monetary/physical rewards for doing something actually lessens motivation in the long term, to maintain a motivation to do something people must reward themselves from an internal sense of satisfaction and wellbeing. in short people will only be motivated to do what they are interested in, and feel good about.

The question then, for this panel should be, how do we create momentum to make a cultural change in the population at large, so the reward for recycling becomes intrinsic.
Is a campaign like the one in the UK in the 90's and 2000's about drink driving something to emulate, which took a practice, that whilst people knew it was bad, generally accepted it, to one that is abhorrent to the vast majority of the population. Do we want to take recycling from something that is a pain to do, to something that is so part of society those that don't recycle are abhorred by society at large?

Consumer Psychology
Consumer Behaviour
Waste Reduction
Benjamin Goodare
77 months ago

11 answers


What's in it for me? Rewards or penalties as Gilbert addressed is key. Using recycling containers that register the waste by weight while providing a financial reward is a good example. Raise garbage collection fees is another and supply more recycling containers is another.
One could also consider paying for take-back of material, or even think of renting the stuff instead of buying it.
Paying the true cost for disposal of the product up front at the register might help as well.
Educating children to chide their parents poor behavior helps.

Glenn Frommer
77 months ago
I think youre right on education, that is key, and educating children is as important, if not more so than educating adults. Children have a much larger influence in their homes than people realise. Whats in it for me is a flawed concept, as the only reward that actually drives long term motivation is from within a person. - Benjamin 77 months ago

In addition to the suggestions provided above regarding highlighting the need and benefit for recycling as something more personal to people, I would also employ the framework that Malcolm Gladwell describes in his 2000 book, "The Tipping Point." In that book he describes how social phenomena can be created and/influenced through the deployment of three specific types of people. These are:

  • Connectors
  • Mavens
  • Salesmen

These three types of personalities are critical to the process because they all are considered to be genuine by the people that are the subject of the social phenomena, and they tend to be influential because the people are personally connected to them in some fashion. Connectors are the type of people that have ties to many different social groups and act as conduits of information between them. This connectivity makes them useful to spreading the virtues of a social program like recycling. Mavens are the type of people that have a large amount of knowledge on a topic and go over and beyond to share that knowledge with others. Salesmen are those people with a high level of charisma and ability to influence others' decisions.

Finding and deploying all three types of people and empowering them to influence others for the cause of recycling should be a major part of any program designed to help motivate more people to recycle.

Leigh Johnson, MBA, PMP
77 months ago
I think you have the answer there Leigh, thats a fantastic theory. I guess I have another book to add to my reading list. It ties nicely in with all the suggestiosn about education above, as it is only through a paradigm shift that we need to make people self motivated, to be "converted" if you will, to recycled. - Benjamin 77 months ago

Hello Benjamin, You raise a good question...I'll do my best to provide a reasonable answer. One of the main challenges currently associated with recycling (at least in my personal experience) is: we don't really know or see the product of our efforts. Yeah, I know that there's a lot of advertising that shows that "my water bottle is now a pair of jeans". Still, we don't really have a good idea about what happens to the stuff that we leave at our curb...where it goes, how it's used, and what the value chain looks like.

Many of us pay to have our items picked up for recycling. We don't know who benefits from this (besides the waste collection service). As far as we know, we may be subsidizing many for-profit operations and 99% of what we leave at the curb goes into landfill. If the recycling process were made more transparent, and if the value equation (i.e. we're able to see the progress we're helping to achieve and that we're making an investment versus paying for a service), I think people would be more motivated to recycle.

Michael Fruhling
77 months ago
I think that might help you are right, Like Glenn suggests the importance of education cant be overstated. I wonder though, with trust in mainstream media at an all time low, how do we go about it? will people trust what theyre told, will thjey be demotivated when they realise they are indeed subsidizing/supporting many for profit operations when they helpfully segregate their waste at home, - Benjamin 77 months ago

Motivation to recycle has several key reasons, monetary reward or penalties is one of the most common. To avoid paying a surcharge on unsorted waste is one, and the return generated for the recycling activity is a push for industry to Invest in.

If such initiatives are linked to a cause. (Generated income will go to support a noble case) than people will be more dedicate to jump in and support.

Gilbert Hobeika
77 months ago
HI Gilbert, Thanks for your response, psychology tells us that extrinsic rewards or punishments, monetary or otherwise is not enough for people to be motivated, in fact without the intrinsic motivation external rewards and/or punishments are actually demotivating. This is why we need to have a total cultural shift so people recycle because theyre self motivated to do so. - Benjamin 77 months ago

There are lots of great ways to motivate people to recycle. I work for a community services district and one of our functions is recycling of household and commercial wastes (glass, cardboard, paper, metal, bulbs, electronics, medicines, batteries). We found higher engagement with single stream cans for cardboard, glass, paper, and metal , compared with trying to sort the wastes, as that took more effort and thought.  Our agency can build campaigns, highlight successful neighborly examples, and educate people about the process and benefits of recycling. If we can budget a half time person to the recycling effort, we are able to produce a lot more outreach and get people more engaged. Recycling motivation usually requires dedicated staff or consultants to focus on it and keep reminding residents about the need for recycling. Lowering the volume of packaging materials (point of sale at store) or better packaging designs lowers waste from the start.

James Jacobs
77 months ago
SO it comes back to education, but I guess that with a dedicated person "on-the-ground" they become a local person who is trusted, and so the issues with not trusting main stream media outlets, or whats read on the internet doesnt come into it. altough it sounds very expensive, who would pay for it? I think your right, removing packaging.waste at source is key too. - Benjamin 77 months ago
And making it simple for consumers has got to be right, here we can recycle plastic 1, 2 & 3. but not the others, how many consumers klnow what that means, and actually read those little numbers ont he plastic. not many it turns out, and that means the plastic 2waste stream has tio be sorted through by the waste contractors, adding cost and people realise (because of the helpful newspapers) ...... - Benjamin 77 months ago
......not everything is recycled that si put into recycling, so why botrher. ITs difficult to educate them, its because they segregated it wrong. no one likes to be told that its their fault and they did it wrong. - Benjamin 77 months ago

From my point of view education is key to motivate people to recycle. Most of the people is not aware of the environmental benefits that can be achieved through recycling or perhaps they are not conscious about the potential damage of such huge amount of plastic wastes in landfill or incineration. I have the feeling that, sometimes, there is still a sense of "recycled" means bad quality product and cost saving instead of associating recycling to environmental impact reduction. Fortunately, this feeling is changing in last years.

A more transparent recycling system is somewhat aligned with education of people. Sometimes is unclear which fractions can be thrown to plastic container and also which of them are really recycled. A more transparent system and education in that sense would increase motivation.

Availability of collection points and economic incentives are also relevant factors. The first one avoids hindering recycling in those people committed with the idea. The second one can promote recycling in those people that is not really committed.

Miguel Lomba
76 months ago

Americans generate 10.5 million tons of plastic waste a year but recycle only 1 or 2 % of it. An estimated 14 billion pounds of trash-most of it plastic -is dumped in the world's oceans every year.

Enough plastic is thrown away each year to circle the earth four times. We currently recover only five percent of the plastics we produce. The average American throws away approximately 185 pounds of plastic per year. The USA has to do a better job recycling along with all the other countries on this big blue marble in space that we call home, planet Earth.

According to the EPA, plastics make up more than 12 percent of the municipal solid waste stream, “a dramatic increase from 1960, when plastics were less than one percent of the waste stream.” US residents are buying more plastic, and only about 8 percent of it gets recycled. The plastics industry rarely uses recycled plastics in the vast majority of their products, unlike the glass and metal industries. The recycling arrows stamped on plastic products and the cities that collect every type of plastic via their recycling programs lead people to believe that all plastic products are recyclable and being recycled, and that’s simply not true. Non-recyclable plastics are separated and landfilled.

Some plastics we know are toxic, such as #3, which is also known as PVC or vinyl. PVC contains phthalates and heavy metals, and creates dioxins when it burns. Other plastics contain Bisphenol-A (BPA), which has been identified as a chemical that disrupts hormones. Plastics can contain thousands of possible additives, and manufacturers are not required to disclose what their recipes are. Any plastic can leach, depending on the conditions (light, heat) and what additives it includes.


David Barckhoff-Sag-Aftra/Producer, Director
75 months ago


Publication of the garbage patch study coincided with a new report from Britain, Foresight Future of the Sea, that found plastic pollution in the ocean could triple by 2050 unless a “major response” is mounted to prevent plastic from reaching the ocean. The report declared plastic pollution to be one of the main environmental threats to the seas, along with sea-level rise and warming oceans.
The study included two aerial surveys in October of 2016 that took 7,000 images, and 652 ocean surface trawls conducted in July, August, and September of 2015 by 18 vessels.
The surface trawls also filled in the rest of the story.
Fifty plastic items collected had a readable production date: One from 1977, seven from the 1980s, 17 from the 1990s, 24 from the 2000s, and one from 2010. Researchers also found 386 objects with recognizable words or sentences in nine different languages.
The writing on a third of the objects was Japanese and another third was Chinese. The country of production was readable on 41 objects, showing they were manufactured in 12 different nations.
The study also concluded that plastic pollution is “increasing exponentially and at a faster rate than in surrounding waters.” Others are not as confident that the conclusion indicates a dramatic change in distribution of marine debris. Much of the world’s marine debris is believed to lie in the coastal regions, not in the middle of oceans.
Leonard says he was impressed with the scope of the study. “It’s strong science,” he says. “But at the same time, in this field, the harder we look, the more plastic we find.”

David Barckhoff-Sag-Aftra/Producer, Director
75 months ago
There are some volunteers , colleges, universities, US Fish & WIldlife service that is helping with clean up, but I think many countries who ship cargo via oceans & the military navy's, should all pitch in and help with cleanup & recycling efforts along with the United Nations, and non profit groups - David 75 months ago

The Psychology Behind Why People Don’t Recycle

If it’s not extremely easy, people won’t do it.

By Erin Schumaker

The benefits of recycling seem straightforward. The practice reduces waste sent to landfills, conserves natural resources, reduces pollution and creates jobs. And the majority of Americans do recycle... sometimes.
Far fewer, however, do it consistently.

“Recycling is a behavior,” Brian Iacoviello, an assistant psychiatry professor at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York City told The Huffington Post. “Much like exercising or eating healthily, people often engage in this behavior less than they ‘should.’”
Indeed, according to a 2011 Ipsos Public Affairs survey, only half of adults recycle daily. Another third of respondents said they recycle less frequently than that, and a full 13 percent revealed that they never recycle.
Because the reward for recycling (saving the earth) and the repercussions for infrequently recycling (damaging the environment) aren’t necessarily immediate, it can be hard for people to make the association between their daily habits and those habits’ consequences.
“It’s that true paradox,” said Jessica Nolan, an associate psychology professor at the University of Scranton. “Individual behavior is both essential and inconsequential.”
Nolan, who previously worked as a municipal recycling director and who researches environmental problems from a social perspective, said that identifying a community’s barriers to recycling is an important first step toward increasing participation. 
While different communities and demographics have different barriers to recycling ― and thus require unique recycling solutions to overcome them ― here are the top reasons people said they don’t recycle more:  

The primary excuse people gave for not recycling was that recycling wasn’t convenient or accessible to them.

“Obviously if the infrastructure is not there, you can’t expect people to participate in a program that doesn’t exist,” Nolan said. “We know that convenience is one of the strongest predictors of whether or not somebody will participate in the available recycling program.”
According to The Economist, about a quarter of Americans don’t have access to curbside recycling, meaning they have to take the extra step of dropping their cans and bottles at a recycling center if they want to participate.
Of course, how people answer a survey isn’t necessarily a reliable indicator of whether or not services are available to them. While doing an informal survey of college students in Arkansas, Nolan noticed that individuals from the same town sometimes answered differently about whether or not a recycling program existed in their hometown. 
“If you’re not interested, you might think you have no recycling program, but in fact you do,” she said. “If there’s a drop off center, you wouldn’t see it unless you went looking for it.”
HuffPost combined the reasons people said they don’t recycle into three clear “types,” then asked the experts what can be done to convert them: 

1. The ‘No-Time’ Non-Recycler 


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The excuse: Recycling is inconvenient, time-consuming or too costly.

The experts say: Iacoviello thinks the crude cost-benefit analysis people do when evaluating recycling’s benefit to them emphasizes the immediate over the long term.
The cost of recycling “is seen and felt more immediately than the cost to the environment of not recycling, which is why it influences behavior more,” he explained.
Those who think recycling is inconvenient may be doing a similar cost-benefit analysis of how much time recycling takes compared to how easy they perceive the activity to be. 
“Once you’ve got your system in place, it’s really not that hard,” Nolan said. “The perceived difficulty of doing something is always greater.”
Targeted intervention: Structural solutions are fundamental to getting more people to participate in environment efforts, according to Nolan.
If, for example, citizens say their town’s drop off program is inconvenient, instituting a curbside program could improve recycling recycling participation rates. Rural communities may need to think more creatively; Nolan suggested partnerships with grocery stores, convenient drop-off sites because people are already visiting them.
Or, she said, “If you see recycling as a value-added activity, why not charge a little more for trash [services] and then make recycling [pickup] free? There are structural ways that you can incentivize recycling.”

2. The Aluminum Can Confuser

The excuse: Isn’t sure what’s recyclable and what’s not; doesn’t understand recycling’s benefit.

The experts say: Recycling can be confusing. It differs from community to community and rules about recycling have changed over time.
And recycling contamination ― when non-recyclables are mixed in with recyclables, rendering the whole batch useless ― is a real issue. (Pro tip: plastic bags CANNOT go in the recycling bin.)
“There’s always that tension between getting people to participate and making sure you end up with a product, rather than just a waste stream,” Nolan said. 
Targeted intervention: Uniform educational materials across communities could help eliminate confusion, even if those communities accept different materials as recyclable.
Nolan suggested having one single image for a given material that’s used everywhere. “If you take glass, then this is the sticker for glass,” she explained. “If you take metal, this is the sticker for which metals you can put in. The idea is to make it easier and free up mental resources.”
Penalties for not recycling are especially effective at encouraging people to learn their cities’ recycling rules. San Francisco, for example, has made strides by making recycling mandatory and fining citizens, building owners and businesses who don’t separate their trash, recycling and compost materials. 
Today the city has the highest landfill diversion rate in the country, and diverts 80 percent of its waste away from landfills, with a goal of eliminating waste entirely by 2020. 

3. The Debris Denier

The excuse: Believes recycling doesn’t makes a difference, isn’t important or is a low priority (”always forgets” to recycle).

The experts say: Despite tangible evidence to the contrary, some respondents still said they didn’t think recycling makes a difference. That’s an indication there’s a key disconnect between communities and recycling advocates, according to Suparna Rajaram, a psychology professor and director of the social memory and cognition lab at Stony Brook University.
“People are not receiving information, whether it makes a difference and in what way it makes a difference,” she said. “There’s no direct connection.”
Other responders say “they always forget” to recycle, another indication that recycling is a low priority for them.

“Why do you forget?” Rajaram asks. “Because you don’t see [recycling] as being a salient behavior that has any consequences.”

Targeted intervention: Rajaram says it’s not just important that people know how to recycle correctly. They also need information about how their recycling efforts directly affect their community.
“Reward can reinforce action,” she said, noting that a reward needn’t be personal. It could be as simple as well-circulated information about the tangible benefits of high participation in community recycling programs.
“If there is not enough information about that connection, we don’t have a starting point.”

David Barckhoff-Sag-Aftra/Producer, Director
75 months ago

Let me share a personal anecdote that may be affecting other responders to this Open Forum question. I am currently experiencing a disincentive to recycle, namely passage of China’s National Sword Act, which took effect on January 1st, 2018. Since China is a major market for recycle materials from my local trash service here in Newport Oregon, only those plastics for recycling with triangular recycle symbols indicating 1 (PET polyethylene terephthalate) or 2 (HDPE, high-density polyethylene) will continue to be collected for recycling. All other plastics are now collected as waste. Shredded paper is also no longer acceptable for recycling as well. Recycling has strong support in the community in which I live, so this change is unfortunate. Seems that additional technologies/solutions are needed to grapple with the problem of waste materials present in the environment.

Rob Walsh
74 months ago
#1 -5 plastic is recyclable only. #6 and up is not. - David 74 months ago
It may come down to differences in how local waste collectors are dealing with the way the market for recyclables has changed. - Rob 74 months ago
To build demand for recycled materials, government and business must not only reinvent themselves, they must also reinvent their relationship, especially when it comes to economic problems that neither can solve alone. - Jatindranath 19 months ago

Recycled materials are becoming a standard requirement in many industries, with some companies declaring ambitious goals of recycled material for all their products.Companies must reflect on everything from their supply chain and raw material sourcing to how their products are being disposed of. This requires constant attention and massive changes to current practices.

Jatindranath Das
19 months ago

Have some input?