With the launch of The Center for Sustainable Behavior & Impact, The Recycling Partnership conducted research for a first-ever Recycling Confidence Index, which included the following results and key findings.
By: Elizabeth Schussler, Senior Director of Social Change, Behavior, and Impact
To affect meaningful circular system change, we need to support recycling behaviors in the home. The Recycling Partnership’s new Center for Sustainable Behavior & Impact (The Center), an innovative hub delivering people-focused solutions grounded in data and behavioral science, is taking a hard look at this issue. Through research, community-based pilots, and scaling up, The Center is driving change.
Our evidence-based research has found that both a person’s confidence in their own recycling knowledge and in the performance of recycling programs are crucial factors in encouraging recycling behavior. That’s why The Center undertook research for its inaugural Recycling Confidence Index, finalized in August 2022. This national research enables us to track, quantify, and qualify recycling confidence over time and identify the factors influencing trust and confidence, using qualitative and quantitative data methods.
For more information on Index methodology, please visit the Recycling Confidence Index website (link).
Key Findings of the August 2022 Recycling Confidence Index Research
Key Finding #1: Recycling is a strongly felt social good.
Our Recycling Confidence Index indicates strong public support for recycling. Survey respondents demonstrated that this is a highly valued public service. The vast majority – 8 in 10 people – believe in recycling’s positive impact and making a difference. Going further, 7 in 10 believe recycling is worth the effort. When asked to identify the top reasons why households recycle, nearly 70% said they did so because it reduces waste and 57% said they recycle to protect the planet.
“It’s good for the planet, it’s good for everybody.” — Focus Group Participant
Key Finding #2: Half of those surveyed believe that the items they recycle are made into new things.
Despite discourse at the national level around a challenged recycling system, when asked to consider whether recycling “works” at the community level, 52% expressed confidence in their program, while only 7% of people said they believed recycled items rarely or never become something new. This suggests that there is room for improvement, but also shows a significant number of people express confidence in their own programs.
Key Finding #3: Highest levels of confidence exist where individuals receive recycling communications and support, including convenient bins, recycling knowledge and information, and motivational messages.
Our research shows that only 1 in 4 people recall receiving a communication from their local recycling program within the past year. However, our data shows that among those who recall communications, nearly 70% report above average knowledge of recycling versus 37% among those who did not recall such communications.
“If I was better informed, maybe I would be able to explain better to the other members of my family. Then, they’ll have no reason not to recycle.” — Focus Group Participant
This is a significant insight for community recycling programs, which often have minimal resources for public engagement. In order to reap the full benefits of the physical infrastructure they develop for their recycling programs, the research demonstrates it is imperative that it be paired with a complementary communications infrastructure.
Key Finding #4: There is an opportunity to improve perceived difficulty of recycling.
When asked whether respondents considered recycling to be difficult, 40% agreed or were not sure. Ease and convenience are consistent themes that we have seen throughout our recycling research. Through our work at The Center, we are piloting interventions (e.g. in home recycling bins) and messaging related to simplifying actions and perceptions of ease. While 60% feel recycling is not difficult, that number should be much higher.
The type of recycling service also directly relates to perceived difficulty. Over 70% of those with curbside service disagreed with the statement “Recycling is difficult” while respondents with drop-off, shared or no service disagreed at progressively lower levels (see chart below).
Key Finding #5: Increased communication and transparency around recycling outcomes would improve trust.
The public has a strong desire for information and reassurance around recycling outcomes. People may “hope for the best” once they toss something in a bin, but confidence can be improved by sharing what happens to recyclables once they are picked up. Less than 20% of those surveyed reported feeling well informed about what happens to recycling after it leaves the home. That transparency, especially from local municipalities and recycling programs, is reassuring.
“Just let us know that it’s working. I don’t know if it’s by percentages or if it’s pictures, but let us know. I think we’re starting to do our part. Let’s see if it paid off.” — Focus Group Participant
Many community programs and recycling facilities do engage residents, but we can do more to support people as drivers of the circular economy. For one, public engagement is a must-have for all recycling programs. Additionally, telling the story of recycling at the local level is impactful; even where the system isn’t perfect, residents appreciate knowledge and transparency.
Additionally, brands promoting their support for recycling programs, their goals to use recycled content and indicating when items contain recycled content all signal to consumers that their choices are helping deliver on waste reduction and the promise of recycling.
Recycling Confidence Index Results
In order to create a robust assessment of recycling confidence – one that we could quantify, qualify, and track over time – we established an Index consisting of 10 factors that, based on our prior research, measure or impact confidence. Five of these factors are intrinsic and attitudes-based, meaning they relate to people’s perceptions and values (e.g. “recycling makes a difference”). Five of these factors are nuts-and-bolts programmatic or operational elements (e.g. “I have everything I need to do a good job of recycling”). Programmatic factors, such as communications, program support, and knowledge, can be impacted through local program outreach and work. Intrinsic values and perceptions, such as believing whether recycling makes a difference, are more difficult to move but are core to a person’s outlook.
Averaging data from both the perceptions-based and programmatic factors, the 2022 Recycling Confidence Index is 630.
If you were to rate your household on a scale of 0 to 10, where 0 means you do not recycle at all, 5 is what an average household does, and 10 means you are “super recyclers” who recycle everything all the time, what score would you give? Recycling is not worth the effort. Recycling is difficult. Recycling has a positive impact. Do you think recycling makes a difference? Do you think the items you recycle are made into new things? Rate how much you know about what items can be recycled in your local recycling program. Use a 0 to 10 scale, where 0 means you know very little at all, 5 is average, and 10 means you know everything there is to know about recycling. How satisfied are you with each of these local services? Have you received or seen any communications from the local recycling program recently, for example within the past 6 or 12 months? I have everything I need to do a good job of recycling.
Worth the Effort
Makes a Difference
Made Into New Things
Local Program Education
All Needs Met
If you were to rate your household on a scale of 0 to 10, where 0 means you do not recycle at all, 5 is what an average household does, and 10 means you are “super recyclers” who recycle everything all the time, what score would you give?
Recycling is not worth the effort.
Recycling is difficult.
Recycling has a positive impact.
Do you think recycling makes a difference?
Do you think the items you recycle are made into new things?
Rate how much you know about what items can be recycled in your local recycling program. Use a 0 to 10 scale, where 0 means you know very little at all, 5 is average, and 10 means you know everything there is to know about recycling.
How satisfied are you with each of these local services?
Have you received or seen any communications from the local recycling program recently, for example within the past 6 or 12 months?
I have everything I need to do a good job of recycling.
We know that improving the U.S. residential recycling system will take time, as will increasing confidence. Our goal is for the Recycling Confidence Index to track confidence over time and to identify and help drive improvement in the factors that can be moved. It is imperative that we preserve and bolster the positive sentiment as we work to improve the programs and support needed. While a “1,000” score would mean everyone is doing everything they can to recycle, everywhere they are, all the time, a lofty bar, we are setting a baseline with the August 2022 Index and are testing tactics to achieve movement in the right direction over time. It is not enough to say recycling is working or not, we must have actionable insights to affect change.
What Will We Do with The Index’s Findings?
Now, through the evidence-based work of The Center, we are well-positioned to work with communities to reduce barriers to recycling and enhance local practices. We will be repeating the Index research regularly to gauge change over time, which will provide insights for policymakers, community recycling program managers, and everyday Americans. We will also be conducting the Index research at the local level, alongside our intervention pilots, to test the connections between confidence in recycling and behavioral habits.
We see there are clear, measurable opportunities to solve for people and planet. And to unlock these opportunities, The Center for Sustainable Behavior & Impact will be a key driver of change.
To learn more about The Center for Sustainable Behavior & Impact’s Recycling Confidence Index, including its methodology and future research, pilots, and action-oriented tools, visit recyclingpartnership.org/recycling-confidence-index