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Deep Dive into Addressing the Intention-Action Gap in Recycling

“How can we support people, how can we design tools and solutions that make it easiest for people to dig in and participate and support the great work of recycling?”

— Louise Bruce, managing director of The Recycling Partnership’s Center for Sustainable Behavior & Impact

Last month, The Partnership’s Center for Sustainable Behavior & Impact (The Center) launched its inaugural report, Accelerated Behavior Change to Achieve a Circular Economy, a deep dive into addressing the intention-action gap in recycling. A key point of the report is that we know Americans want to recycle (eight in 10 report recycling is worth the effort) but we know that over half of household recyclables currently end up in the trash instead of the recycling bin.

So, what does it take for people to recycle well every chance they get?

This is the question. And, the search for answers is what guides the work of The Center for Sustainable Behavior & Impact, which we launched in 2022.

As a follow-up to the initial launch, Louise Bruce, managing director of The Center, unpacked the report, shared some behind-the-scenes observations on the latest research, and discussed the critical importance of behavior change. She noted that the breadth and depth of data contained in the report allow readers to proverbially “peel back the curtain and look into people’s homes” to understand more about Americans’ recycling-related motivations, confidence, processes, and more.

When you look at an individual American household, an average home will generate 750-800 pounds of recyclables per year. Yet, Louise pointed out, “We’re losing about 350-400 pounds just due to behavior gaps—like confusion.” So, the research that went into the 2023 Knowledge Report sought to understand “what motivates people, what are the barriers they’re facing, and how can we support them.”

And, how can we leverage powerful tools like audience segmentation to make sure the right messaging is reaching the right people?

In addition to directly observing recycling behavior in 16 people’s homes, conducting over 100 in-depth interviews, and surveying more than 10,000 people, a critical component of our latest research consisted of community pilot programs. These took place in seven communities across the country to test messages and intervention strategies, such as mailers, cart tags, in-home bins, and door-to-door canvassing. We tracked and evaluated the impact of each messaging and format on overall recycling participation and/or capture.

The participating cities were:

  • Baldwin Park, California
  • Collier County, Florida
  • Chicago, Illinois
  • Elgin, Illinois
  • Hammonton, New Jersey
  • Cincinnati, Ohio
  • Reynoldsburg, Ohio

Ultimately, through our multi-stakeholder, evidenced-based approach, we found that four key themes must be true to make widespread behavior change possible. Hear Louise speak about these themes; what we found through our ethnography research; how to get involved, and what’s next in the on-demand webinar below.

This important work will take all of us, so we hope you’ll also check out the full report—and get inspired! We each have an essential role to play in making recycling work better for everyone.

Download the Report