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Behavior Change is at the Heart of Everything We Do

By: Elizabeth Schussler, Senior Director of Social Change, Behavior, and Impact

At The Recycling Partnership, behavior change is at the heart of everything we do because people and the planet are at our core. A focus on recycling behavior and the impacts of behavior are ingrained in our DNA and our core values; it’s embedded in our work on the ground in thousands of communities across the U.S.; and it drives our data, research. Recycling is not just a matter of tons. Success relies on the decisions we all make across the system — from products to processes to promises. It all comes down to better choices, better behaviors, and better outcomes. 

Currently, too many recyclables end up in landfills when they could be remade into something new. In fact, we lose 15 million tons of valuable recyclables each year – that’s about half of all recyclables found in households across the United States. Yes, we need to do some work, but it’s far from being a lost cause. A robust, efficient U.S. recycling system is necessary to achieve a circular economy that serves the greater good, and to achieve that goal it is critical to support recycling behaviors in the home.  

The Recycling Partnership is directly qualified to lead this effort.  

No other organization has this combination of people, data, and solutions to successfully drive behavior change. That’s because recycling behavior change requires: 

  • A collaborative effort involving companies, communities, materials recovery facilities, and policymakers; 
  • A network of recycling community partnerships to pilot behavioral interventions, measure capture and participation on the ground, and ultimately scale best practices; 
  • Comprehensive data;  
  • Expertise in recycling education; and  
  • An established track record of improving underperforming recycling programs and solving system challenges. 

In early years, The Partnership piloted the groundbreaking “Feet on the Street” recycling quality improvement program in cities across Massachusetts.  The program, which has been researched, piloted, scaled, and grant funded in more than 260 communities nationwide, centered on improving recycling quality by giving people real-time, personalized feedback on the items they place in their recycling carts, so they know what is and what is not accepted in their community. For instance, plastic bags are a big no-no for many curbside recycling programs– clogging up recycling facility machinery and messing up the stream. At the end of the Massachusetts project, the amount of plastic bag contamination dropped from 43% to 15%.  The major metropolitan cities of Atlanta, Chicago, and Denver saw similar successes from Feet on the Street behavior change. For instance, the educational pilot in Atlanta led to a 27% increase in recyclable materials and a 57% decrease in contamination. As a result of this work, we now have free, open-source, customizable toolkits available for communities to use whenever they are looking to transform their programming.  

Our community work has become even more expansive, most recently looking at creative ways to improve recycling access for people who live in multifamily housing, like apartments. Multifamily communities, which are demographically diverse, are historically underserved and face more barriers to recycling. Through extensive education and outreach, including bilingual FAQs, our work in Orlando, Florida added recycling services to more than 21,000 multifamily units in just the first year of the project. Our Recycling Inclusion Fund continues to look at ways to close the equity gap and empower BIPOC communities with resources that meet their needs. This work ultimately looks to address systemic disparities in the waste and recycling industries. We are continually adapting to what is needed at the community level and from a “people” perspective.  

One of our core values is “Partnership is Part of Our Name for a Reason” – that’s because we are uniquely qualified – and successful – in bringing folks to the table to affect system change. For instance, we embarked on a campaign in Chula Vista, California around safe disposal and recycling of batteries and personal electronic equipment. These items can explode, causing much harm to people and facilities, so it was imperative to raise awareness of the hazards and what folks can do to recycle or dispose of items. During the campaign, which included mailers and digital marketing, the city’s hazardous waste facility saw two to three times more batteries than the prior year and continues to see gains. Out of that partnership, we created an official toolkit and open-source portal to help communities communicate around potentially hazardous batteries and electronics to ensure the information is shared broadly and replicated. The Partnership has followed the same model for research, pilot and scale to build people-focused materials like DIYSigns and campaign builder, to empower communities with information.   

Now, with the launch of The Center for Sustainable Behavior & Impact (The Center), we’re connecting all the dots and bringing the work together to achieve equitable recycling access and support. The Center for Sustainable Behavior & Impact is working to improve recycling through robust data, human-centered research, and on-the-ground community pilots, making it easy for all Americans to participate in supporting a healthier planet. The Center is an incubator to pilot behavioral interventions and innovation, measure capture and participation on the ground, and ultimately scale best practices. With the data from our inaugural Recycling Confidence Index, we have a baseline to understand the drivers of confidence and measure change.  

We have a responsibility to make it easy and rewarding for all Americans to fully participate in recycling. The Recycling Partnership has been investing in this work for years. Join us to do even more. 

Learn about the Center for Sustainable Behavior & Impact and actionable steps for behavior change.