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Tackling Contamination – Say What You Want

By Elizabeth Schussler, Sr Dir Social Change, Behavior and Impact

Trying to fight contamination in your local recycling program? Ask specifically for what you want (or don’t want). Our research shows that much of contamination can be solved by telling residents exactly how to recycle properly. (Watch this video that reviews our work with Atlanta.)

While our brain functions are evolving, classic psychology and education insights are still very relevant. We need to make information at a glance understandable, memorable and actionable.

Here are a few insights behind The Recycling Partnership’s proven approach to fighting contamination:

We need behavior change, not just awareness. We have to overcome the myth that reach and education will change behavior. Informed folks continue to buy self-help books because their awareness and even knowledge about “doing better” is not enough to change behavior. So where to start?

Think classroom learning:

  • Start with setting behavioral expectations (see a sample Annual Infocard)
  • Issue a clear call to action “don’t bag your recycling” instead of “do better” (see a sample Top Issue Mailer)
  • Make it easy and convenient (universal service delivers more than opt-in – see the State of Curbside Report)
  • Give noticeable feedback (see these stats on carts rejected vs carts tagged and picked up as trash)

Organize information in a handy, predictable hierarchy. We talk about levels of 1-5-50.

  • If you say one thing, it is easier to hear and remember. You will have a larger engaged audience and you can gain their attention in the most places.
  • If you say five things, fewer but still many people will hear and remember your message, but you will need to communicate in a place where you will have their attention long enough to process the multiple pieces of information.
  • And if you have 50 things you need people to know, it needs to be organized, scannable, searchable. Listeners will not remember the 50. Rather than storing important information, we are more likely to store information about where to find the facts.
  • Finally, make finding information predictable and easy. It sounds simple, but when multiple groups put out messaging to residents – haulers, communities, stakeholders –talking to residents can be tricky. Make sure what you say in one place is the same thing you say in another. (see our to MRFshed Report)

Chunk messages into digestible bits that are easy to remember. Attention and memory are commodities. Just because you say it doesn’t mean anyone heard it or remembered it. And there are limits. Studies show that while brains are evolving in response to constant information input, most people have an attention span of about eight seconds and can remember a string of seven things. (Curious? Test your memory.)


Suggested Links

Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard

Psychology Today Does Raising Awareness Change Behavior? https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/denying-the-grave/201806/does-raising-awareness-change-behavior

TEDTalk: How Great Leaders Inspire Action by Simon Sinek