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How to Address the Intention-Action Gap in Recycling

The Recycling Partnership’s Center for Sustainable Behavior & Impact’s new Knowledge Report presents four themes for accelerating recycling best practices

Recycling is a complex, reverse supply chain—and its success depends on the small, everyday actions of hundreds of millions of people. In kitchens, laundry rooms, and bathrooms across the U.S., individuals decide what will be recycled or trashed, how to prepare a package for recycling, and why it is important to recycle. 

Eight in 10 Americans report that recycling is, in fact, worth the effort. And yet, we know that over half of household recyclables end up in trash bins instead of recycling bins. We have evidence that the right education and motivation can bridge the intention-action gap and we must act before any further decline in confidence threatens future participation. 

So, what does it take for people to recycle well every chance they get? This question is central to the work of The Partnership’s The Center for Sustainable Behavior & Impact, which launched in 2022. We are closing the pernicious intention-action gap in recycling by understanding the barriers, prototyping solutions, and deploying behavior change resources that are rooted in social science to communities across the U.S. We also want to provide key insights that will help you in your work—whether you’re a recycling-program coordinator, or policymaker, or you represent a hauler, materials recovery facility, processor, or brand. 

In the Center’s first year, the team sought to better understand how knowledge gaps, perceptions, personal beliefs, demographics, and psychographics impact recycling behavior. For instance, which barriers and motivators arise for different audiences? What common trends and patterns do we see across the recycling public?  

In just under two years, we dove deep into these topics, we went behind the scenes in 16 homes, conducted over 100 in-depth interviews, surveyed more than 10,000 people across the country, and tested engagement and intervention strategies through seven community pilots that reached 52,000 homes to develop the comprehensive and informative Knowledge Report. Keep reading to learn what we uncovered and download the Report.

The critical importance of behavior change 

Research shows most Americans feel recycling is worthwhile. So, how come, even in households with recycling access, only 50% of recyclable material gets recycled?   

The answer is: behavior gaps. Driven by confusion, lack of confidence, or other barriers and friction points. According to the Recycling Confidence Index conducted in 2022, when shown a card with basic recycling information, 84% of respondents said it would give them more confidence in their recycling practices, but only one in four could remember receiving any information from their program and less than half (47%) said they believe their recyclables are always or usually made into new things.  

Our research shows that negative social media content and news coverage about recycling create confusion, skepticism, and mistrust in the minds of Americans. So, it’s up to all of us to protect positive perceptions of recycling, especially because we know that correlates with positive behaviors.

Key themes for accelerating recycling best practices

From our research, four key themes emerged. The following must be true if we want to enable widespread, positive behavior change: 

  • We have systemic communications. Recycling rules change and improve, which is good, but the average person does not anticipate these changes. Especially given the pace of improvements in recycling and packaging design, we must build a communications infrastructure that can help people embrace and adapt to the ongoing change. It should also make learning easy and rewarding.
  • People have confidence in recycling outcomes. Until now, we have been able to take Americans’ confidence in recycling for granted. However, with that confidence in decline, it is imperative that we provide Americans more transparency with support, reassurance, and guidance to restore their confidence and protect recycling participation.
  • Engagement and outreach are tailored to different audiences. For a long time, communities have wanted to move beyond a “one-size-fits-all” approach and now is the time. Multi-layered interventions that are segmented to meet a particular audience’s motivations, ethnographic considerations, and more are needed to drive behavior change.
  • Recycling systems are designed with behavior in mind. Inside their homes, recyclers have created “home-grown” systems and “rules of recyclability” to decide what gets to the curb or drop-off location. Together, we must bring new thinking and behavior-centered design to alleviate the hard work of household recycling.

How do we begin to accelerate recycling-behavior best practices?

The four key themes above are a critical starting point in rethinking and adapting the recycling system. And we encourage every stakeholder to think about them within the context of the three “stage gates” that influence recycling behavior, to see where and how you can adapt what you are doing to spur improvements. 

  • Stage gate #1 – Access: These are the conditions that shape people’s opportunity and ability to recycle. Do people have easy access to the service and the recycling containers they need to be successful?
  • Stage gate #2 – Education: This is the specific information people need to decide what, when, and how to recycle. Is there guidance on what should and should not go in the bin, such as on-container signage, a mailed guide, or an online resource? How often are they receiving the information and the reminders? Are product and packaging labels helping or hurting?
  • Stage gate #3 – Engagement: This stage is more complex and abstract. And it builds on the fact that awareness and education alone do not change behaviors. Engagement encompasses an individual’s values, beliefs, attitudes, and identity and the social dynamics and social norms at play within their household and community. At its most basic, it answers the question: once a person can recycle through access and information – will they and will they do it properly?

It takes a village…

The bottom line is that it takes a proverbial village to generate real, meaningful change—that means individuals, communities, companies, governments, and everyone else who is working all along the recycling value chain. And we need to incite change now. In addition to the mounting economic and environmental costs, extended producer responsibility (EPR) legislation adds to our already urgent need to unlock behavior change.   

Our 2023 Knowledge Report digs deep into the above themes and provides essential details on turning these insights into action. This important work will take all of us, so we hope you’ll take a few minutes to review these latest insights—and get inspired! We each have an essential role to play in making recycling work better for everyone.

Download the full 2023 Knowledge Report