Accelerating Recycling Best Practices

The Knowledge Report from the Center for Sustainable Behavior & Impact

We all want to recycle well, but how? The 2023 Knowledge Report, from The Center for Sustainable Behavior & Impact, digs into what it will take—from all of those involved in the value chain—to incite the change necessary to accelerate recycling best practices. For this inaugural report, 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. 

Two of the key questions we’ve asked are: 

  1. “What does it take for people to recycle well every chance they get?”  
  2. “How can we best address the intention-action gap?”  

Eight in 10 Americans report that recycling is worth the effort. And yet, over half of household recyclables end up in trash bins instead of recycling bins, creating economic and environmental costs. Together, we need to unlock behavior change now. 

This report provides insights and inspiration that will help you in your work—whether you’re a recycling program coordinator, policymaker, or you represent a hauler, MRF, processor, or brand. Ultimately, we each have an essential role to play in making recycling work better for everyone. 

Four Key Themes Must Be True To Make Widespread Behavior Change Possible

We have systemic communications

We must build a communications infrastructure that can help people embrace ongoing change and make learning easy and rewarding.

People have confidence in recycling outcomes

We must provide Americans more transparency with support, reassurance, and guidance to protect their confidence in recycling and increase participation.

Engagement and outreach are tailored to different audiences

We need segmented multi-layered interventions to meet the audience’s motivations, ethnographic considerations, and more to drive behavior change.  

Recycling systems are designed with behavior in mind

Together, we must bring new thinking and behavior-centered design to alleviate the difficulties and confusion associated with household recycling.


Where were the data and research obtained for the Knowledge Report?

Our foundational research is based on five research reports and seven pilot projects made up of broad-reaching surveys, in-depth studies, and multiple community pilot projects.

  • Audience Segmentation Research, communications and tools tailored to various segments of single-family curbside recyclers based on their specific barriers, motivators, and psychographics, such as self-perception, values, beliefs, and lifestyle. The qualitative phase included 24 participants and a quantitative phase surveyed a nationally representative sample of over 2,500 participants.
  • Recycling Confidence Index Research, which established a baseline measurement of confidence in recycling nationwide, to be tracked over time, and explored a combination of practical, “nuts and bolts” operational factors and perceptive, intrinsic values factors. This included a quantitative online survey completed by a nationally representative sample of over 3,100 participants and qualitative focus groups with 23 participants.
  • Ethnography Research, which used in-home observations and in-depth interviews to understand how household recycling systems work in the context of daily life, the values and beliefs that drive behavior, and how specific barriers get in the way of recycling right. Home visits and interviews were conducted with 23 individuals in San Diego, California, and Columbus, Ohio.
  • Consumer Insights on Packaging and Labeling Research, which examined how people decide what to recycle, why confusion exists, and how product labels play a role. A baseline survey was completed by a nationally representative sample of more than 1,310 participants; subsequent phases used samples of over 1,000 participants to gather user experience input.
  • Inclusion Fund Research, which compiled a baseline understanding of recycling awareness, behavior, barriers, and motivators for adults who identify as Hispanic/Latinx, Black/African-American, Asian-American/Pacific Islander, or Native American. The first phase included in-depth interviews with nine participants; 1,200 adults completed a final comprehensive survey.
  • Equity Gap Analysis, which incorporated key census data into The Partnership’s Recycling National Database. By overlaying demographics within our robust programmatic data set of 9,000 communities, we were able to uncover persistent inequalities in the provision of recycling services. 
  • In-Field Pilots and Case Studies, which tested messaging and intervention strategies reaching 52,000 American homes and tracked their impact on overall recycling participation and/or capture. Participants included Baldwin Park, California; Chicago, Illinois; Cincinnati, Ohio; Collier County, Florida; Elgin, Illinois; Hammonton, New Jersey; Reynoldsburg, Ohio; and Sarasota County, Florida. 

Why is it important to focus on changing recycling behavior?

Even when U.S. residents have access to recycling, only 50% of what CAN be recycled gets recycled. And OVER HALF of the residential recyclable material lost to landfill is due to behavior gaps. Thus, if we want to make significant improvements to the recycling value chain, we must start with behavior changes at the individual level.

To put the current behavior gap into perspective, it translates into 15 million tons of recyclable materials being trashed every year. Beyond losing valuable material for future packaging, this loss also drives 63 million metric tons of carbon dioxide into our atmosphere and costs $834 million in landfill expenses. On top of that, we are also missing a potential 17,500 jobs that would be generated if this material were captured in the recycling system. 

Now is the time to address these issues, particularly in light of the fact that EPR legislation is getting proposed and approved across the U.S., meaning that manufacturers will become responsible for recycling rates. For this reason, brands will want to think about their own packaging recyclability and support efforts to increase recycling participation overall. 

Behavior change solutions can increase participation and decrease contamination, which will ultimately help increase recycling rates and economic efficiency. These solutions need to be based on the science of behavior change, which dives deep into what makes an audience tick, uncovers where their friction points are, and provides (often simple) solutions that help people make positive change.  

How should I use this Report?

For Brands 

  • Deepen understanding of how people make recycling decisions 
  • Reimagine product design and packaging labels 
  • Find opportunities to partner with local recycling programs 

For Recycling Program Designers and Coordinators 

  • Leverage audience and behavior insights from the Knowledge Report in your program 
  • Better understand the variety of factors influencing recycling decisions 
  • Find inspiration on how to design programs 

For Policymakers 

  • Discover what is proven to be effective 
  • Uncover ways to support behavior change efforts 
  • Learn why policy is an important piece of the behavior change puzzle 

For Haulers and Material Recovery Facilities 

  • Confirm household behaviors contributing to contamination
  • Understand from customers’ perspectives 
  • Discover most effective ways to support behavior change efforts 

Download the Knowledge Report 

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