Motivation and emotion/Book/2016/Recycling motivation

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Recycling motivation:
What motivates people to engage in household recycling?

Overview[edit | edit source]

The quantity of landfill is a concern worldwide, and is expected to increase to 2.2 billion tones in 2025 if the population augments at its current rate (Dai et al., 2015). Over the past decades there has been an increased interest in the types of people who recycle and what prevents them from doing so (Baxter & Gram-Hanssen, 2016), but there has not been as much attention on recycling motivation (RM) (Manzi, Nichols & Richardson, 2016). Even if every country had appropriate recycling facilities, technologies, products and legislation to enforce recycling, the decision to recycle rests on the individual (Dai et al., 2015), which makes RM crucial.

Matthew’s girlfriend Julia doesn’t want to take out the recycling, but he has a new job and is not home to do it at a reasonable hour. How can he motivate Julia?

Before advising Matthew or Julia on how to reduce the rubbish piling up in their apartment, it is important to understand some known influences on RM. Firstly, where Matthew and Julia live may have an impact on their motivation. 

Recycling practices[edit | edit source]

Figure 1. The Waste Hierarchy[factual?].

Waste generation via households is especially an issue in high income homes in urbanized countries (Bruvoll, Halvorsen & Nyborg, 2002).

Figure 3. An example of recycling, landfill and food waste bins for kerbside recycling in Toronto.

The word recycling was first used in the 1920s but only in the context of waste disposal in the 1970s (Werrett, 2013). Even if it is listed third on the waste generation hierarchy, the research may be applicable to the "higher" constructs. Recycling of smart phones is assumed to be low worldwide due to a lack of evidence into its rates[explain?] (Baxter & Gram-Hanssen, 2016). Ironically, plastic pots or trays for growing plants generates a lot of waste in the United States, with only 3.9% recycled. Plastics are the least recycled out of all waste (Meng, Klepacka, Florkowski & Braman, 2015).

Some researchers identified the role of government policy, information provided to the public, accessibility and technology to recycle on RM.

  • Budraite (2015) thought a mix of these and a person’s values had the biggest impact.
  • Zen et al. (2014) described a 'pyramid' hierarchy, with government policies (the most critical) at the top, followed by the availability of recyclable materials (like packaging), then the individual. The components of this system were thought to influence each other.

Curbside collection is the most commonly used system worldwide. Despite being expensive for governments to implement, they have high participation rates. Neighborhood and zone containers are intended to be used by members of an apartment complex or neighborhood (Gonzalez-Torre Adenso-Diaz & Ruiz-Torres, 2003).

Recycling in Australia[edit | edit source]

Australia contributes to nearly 21 000 000 tonnes of waste per year, a far greater quantity than European countries, and half of this is recyclable material (Parsons & Kriwoken, 2010). Despite the use of methane gas capture to manage landfill, since 1992 waste management has been focused more on minimizing the creation of waste and increasing recycling. The National Waste Policy of 2009 added "using waste as a resource" to the list of goals (Gillespie & Bennett, 2013), which falls under the category of 'reuse' in the hierarchy. Kerbside collection in Australia usually provide two bins, one for landfill and one for recycling, but in some areas a third bin for compost is available (Gillespie & Bennett, 2013).

According to the 2006 Australian Bureau of Statistics, 1% of Australians do not engage in household recycling, which is considered high (White & Hyde, 2011). To improve recycling prospects in the country, it was suggested that cost to recycle is reduced and incentives increased (Parsons & Kriwoken, 2010). The Australian Capital Territory waste management goal over the next ten years is to eliminate landfill completely (ACT Government, 2011).

Recycling across the world[edit | edit source]

On average 25% of Europe's waste is recycled (Byrne & O'Regan, 2014). In England 2012/3 this rate was 43%, and Germany achieved 62% in 2010 (Dai et al., 2015), so there appears to be great variation in the EU. Countries in Northern Europe or the Northern Atlantic (Nordic) utilize high quality, advanced electronic recycling systems (Baxter & Gram-Hanssen, 2016). Scandinavia is thought to have the greatest amount of electronic waste collection and waste treatment that leads to less harm of the environment (Baxter & Gram-Hanssen, 2016), while Alytus city in Lithuania claims to have the most technologically advanced recycling systems (Budraite, 2015). "Take back" schemes at retailers have been common in these areas for the past two decades.

Figure 4. A metal recovery facility in the US.

Norway's irresponsible smart phone disposal is rather low from analyses of landfill (Baxter & Gram-Hanssen, 2016), but other countries may not be as fortunate. The United Nations University's review of Electronic Waste in Europe noted that a large portion of electronic devices are not recycled (Huisman et al., 2008). According to a 2015 Norwegian survey over three quarters of participants had at least one phone that was not in use (Baxter & Gram-Hanssen, 2016). Factories where phones are disassembled manually are linked to lower levels of recycling in that area (Scott, 2014), so higher quality technologies may help.

In Africa and Asia there is grave concern with the waste management system, especially in areas that are rapidly increasing in population and urbanization because efficient government policies and technologies have not yet been implemented. Current problems are odours, blocked drains, water contamination, soil pollution, the general aesthetic of 'dirtiness' and spread of disease (Zen, Noor & Yusuf, 2014). In the United States (US) the types of recycling collection areas vary, although curbside bins are most common. In some states there is a greater focus on zone containers shared between companies and schools (Gonzalez-Torre et al., 2003). The US is the largest generators of waste with Japan and China close behind (Seacat & Northrup, 2010).

If Julia and Matthew lived in Northern Europe, RM might not be attributed to the countries[grammar?] policies, however, if they were living in Asia, it could.

Test yourself

What is the most commonly used, efficient recycling system worldwide?

Neighbourhood containers
Curbside bins
Zone containers


Different approaches to understanding recycling motivation[edit | edit source]

Historically popular RM theories were altruism and monetary incentives, (Cecere, Mancinelli & Mazzanti, 2014), though in recent years RM has found to be more complex (Baxter & Gram-Hanssen, 2016).[Provide more detail]

Values[edit | edit source]

Those who recycle are often considered to value environmental stability, although what a person says they value and their behaviour are not related (Baxter & Gram-Hanssen, 2016; Izagirre-Olaizola, Fernández-Sainz & Vicente-Molina, 2015; Vogt, 2014). It may play a role as Bruvoll et al. (2002) found 97% of their sample agreed that contributing to a sustainable environment was part of RM.

It is not enough to simply believe that recycling is a worthwhile activity. A person must also have the means and belief in their ability to carry out the behaviour (Izagirre-Olaizola et al., 2015), so in other words, an individual must have self-efficacy.

Effort and convenience[edit | edit source]

Figure 5. An example of advertising on recycling in the USA.

Convenience is important to consider (Gonzalez-Torre et al., 2003; Baxter and Gram-Hanssen, 2016; Parsons & Kriwoken, 2010; Hage, Söderholm & Berglund, 2009). In a survey of 509 participants in Ireland, 43% agreed that they would recycle more if it was more convenient to do so (Byrne & O'Regan, 2014). The greater physical distance a person has to travel to recycle, like when using neighbourhood or zone collection systems, the less likely recycling is (González-Torre & Adenso-Díaz, 2005), which accounts for the popularity and effectiveness of curbside bins (Gonzalez-Torre et al., 2003). Those in cramped housing or flats with limited storage were less likely to recycle as curbside arrangements were difficult to manage (Byrne & O'Regan, 2014). Different recycling schemes have varying impacts on RM. 67% of Asturian citizens (of Spain) disliked zone collection [explain?] because of problems with noise, finding parking and dislike of the visual aesthetic (Gonzalez-Torre et al., 2003).

The larger the size of the item, the less likely a person is to recycle it because of how much effort and resources it requires to transport it to a recycling facility[factual?]. In this circumstance the technologies and available recycling locations are fundamental (Baxter & Gram-Hanssen, 2016; Byrne & O'Regan, 2014). In Taiwan, inconvenience and lack of time to recycle are often cited as barriers (Tsaur, 2014). For items where the person has attached sentimental value or has paid a lot of money to acquire it, recycling or 'giving away' the item is less likely. Charitable donation, where the person gives away the item is one method to get around this, although availability is varied depending on the country of interest (Baxter & Gram-Hanssen, 2016). Bruvoll et al. (2002) found that in Norway the willingness to organize waste correctly declines the more complicated and elaborate the system is, which may be driven by a lack of self-efficacy.

If they lived in a cramped apartment building, Julia might find it too physically exhausting and time consuming to take out the recycling.

Knowledge[edit | edit source]

A survey of households in Malaysia noted a relationship between income and education on those who recycled and those who did not. Those who recycled had higher level education, had knowledge of recycling and why it was important, in contrast to those who didn't recycle who had low income, low level education and did not understand the importance of the activity. However, it is not clear if the effect is causal or applies to other cultures (Zen et al., 2014). In terms of mobile phones, customers have noted that many keep the phone around as a spare (but don't use it). A small number of respondents in Norway answered that they do not know how to recycle their mobile phone, while the percentage of respondents falling into this category was larger in Finland at 15-20% (Baxter & Gram-Hanssen, 2016). A lack of knowledge is therefore a small barrier to recycling, although it is still worth addressing. Lack of public awareness and government funding appear to be greater barriers to recycling in Australia (Parsons & Kriwoken, 2010), Malaysia and Africa (Zen et al., 2014).

Julia might not know which plastics are recyclable. If their apartment complex shared bins, she might not remember which one is hers to the neighbours. Or perhaps she believes that recycling doesn’t matter.

Social influences[edit | edit source]

RM increases if neighbors, friends or family engage in curbbside collection, and additional pro-environment behaviors such as composting due to social desirability (Hage et al., 2009; Byrne & O'Regan, 2014). 73% of participants in Bruvoll et al's. (2002) interviews agreed that an element of their motivation was desiring to be a morally responsible individual, which may support altruistic tendencies toward waste sorting. Also, 88% agreed that they thought they should engage in behaviors they wanted others to.

Gender differences are small. Men are more likely to have more knowledge of recycling, but women are more likely to engage in the behaviour (Izagirre-Olaizola et al., 2015).

Julia might have relied on Matthew’s reminders before, or perhaps her neighbours are abusive and it is distressing to encounter them.

Test yourself

Valuing environmental stability has a strong correlation to RM.



Theories of recycling motivation[edit | edit source]

A variety of theories attempt to explain RM and some have more support than others. Most include the constructs mentioned in the previous section but under different names. 

  • Dai et al. (2015) combined 17 theories into one. In addition to the influences mentioned in the previous sections, belief of consequences, prompts (triggers to re-motivate action), role clarification (who should do what?), action planning and emotion were included.
Figure 6. What would it take for passers by to dispose of the rubbish on the ground more appropriately?
  • Izagirre-Olaizola et al. (2015) theorized that the Value Belief Norm Theory is useful to describe RM in university students as it includes altruistic motivators even if it does not explain everything.
  • The Consumer Awareness Model of recycling is divided into constructs and mindsets. A low level mindset focused on practical barriers while a higher level mindset related to values, to answer "Why should I recycle?" (Baxter & Gram-Hanssen, 2016).
  • The Regulatory Focus Theory divided motivation and emotion regulation into a number of categories, which further recommend methods to change or improve behaviour depending on the motivational influences. A promotion focus is similar to approach goals (Baxter & Gram-Hanssen, 2016).
  • Manzi et al. (2016) identified three main themes in their observational study of health and social care facilities in England: communication, how the environment affects the person and the how the person thinks about waste management. This is perhaps an overly simplified explanation of RM, although it does align with what other researchers have concluded.

The Information, Motivation and Behavioural Skills model (IMB) from Fisher and Fisher in 1992 significantly predicted curbside recycling behaviour in the US. It is made up of three components: information, motivation (social influences and intentions) and behavioral skills (self efficacy) (Seacat & Northrup, 2010). It may therefore be a parsimonious theory to explain RM.

Peppa Pig's brother George has information from his parents that recycling is important. Since he is little and seems to have a supportive relationship with his parents, he does not question it. He also benefits from receiving praise from them (social influence). His intentions and motivation appear to be because he wants to be helpful like his sister, and he has fun recycling, apparent by giggling. He sees that Peppa can put the rubbish in the appropriate bins at the collection center (vicarious experience), and even though he is too short to reach the bin, his dad picks him up so he can do so. He also knows he can recycle because he managed to at home. George would feel self efficacious about the behavior.

Self Determination Theory (SDT)[edit | edit source]

In a survey across the EU behavioral patterns stemming from intrinsic motivation had a larger impact on recycling by reducing the amount sent to landfill (Cecere et al., 2014). De Young (1986) found a positive relationship between RM and intrinsic motivation. Pelletier Tuson, Green‐Demers, Noels and Beaton (1998) created the Motivation Toward the Environment Scale questionnaire which combined extrinsic and intrinsic motivation factors. In a survey of three thousand participants from Canada, a common response was amotivation due to learned helplessness and lack of strategy or competency beliefs of recycling, which made beliefs about the environment itself more negative (Pelletier, Dion, Tuson & Green-Demers, 1999). The authors therefore suggested that promoting autonomy and competence by providing choices and opportunities for recycling, while increasing education on how a person may be involved may assist with this issue[grammar?].

Bruvoll et al. (2002) noted that 38% of their 1162 respondents from Norway recorded that sorting through rubbish was a partially or fully enjoyable activity, indicating that being intrinsically motivated toward recycling is not wholly impossible. When given the choice if another person or system could manage waste for them, 72% replied that they would prefer to abandon the task, indicating that many who recycle are extrinsically or amotivated to recycle. Self efficacy is considered a "intrinsic motivation reinforcer" for the modulating effect it has on these constructs. Both self efficacy and intrinsic motivation together create RM (Tabernero & Hernández, 2011).

Peppa Pig initially recycles because she wants to help her parents and is curious about learning, but then she finds the activity enjoyable, and even makes up a song about recycling. These details point toward intrinsic motivation, but possibly integrated regulation as it may support the notion of, "I am a helpful person". There are aspects of extrinsic motivation as her parents told her recycling is important, but not why, and praise her. Her parents take the bin to the curbside, which makes household recycling easy for Peppa so she would feel self efficacious about the behavior. We can predict from the mixture of self efficacy and intrinsic details that Peppa will continue to be helpful with the recycling, and even more when she understands recycling as she likes to learn, and enjoys organizing rubbish into boxes.

Theory of Planned Behaviour (TPB)[edit | edit source]

Budraite (2015) created a questionnaire using the TPB to help understand motivations for household recycling. Responses were coded into four categories: those who already recycle and are conscious of it, those who recycle but are apathetic to it, those who find it frustrating so do not recycle and those who do not care. The TPB was structured so that intention predicted behaviour, and this included attitudes about recycling, pressure and expectation and control over one's behaviour  (White & Hyde, 2011). While it is a commonly utilized theory to explain RM, it has been criticized for not acknowledging the moral grounds for RM (Izagirre-Olaizola et al., 2015; Rhodes et al., 2015) or taking considering the impact of a person's location and social context (Wu, DiGiacomo, Lenkic, Wong & Kingstone, 2016). Rhodes et al. (2015) found that the TPB explained 48% variance in recycling behavior of items not collected by curbside schemes, and it did not predict behaviour changes. White and Hyde (2011) found that there was some support for the theory, although considered it useful to add an extra dimension of self-identity as this is a strong predictor of RM, indicating that the TPB as it currently stands may not be an efficient framework to explain RM.

Test yourself

Which RM theory predicted curbside recycling?

The Theory of Planned Behaviour
The Value Belief Norm Theory
The Regulatory Focus Theory
The Information, Motivation and Behavioural Skills Model


How can I increase recycling motivation in myself or others?[edit | edit source]

To increase the chances of a person recycling, positive reinforcement or reward is more motivating than negative reinforcement (nagging, criticism for littering) or punishment. On a large scale a 'loss approach' (there is a negative consequence for not recycling) is preferred as a short term initiative, while the positive consequences of recycling promote long term change (Pelletier et al., 1998). Primary school programs such as "Green School Program" in Ireland did not improve children's awareness of recycling, although their attitudes toward it were improved and they were more likely to get involved in local conservation projects (Byrne & O'Regan, 2014). Therefore education and reward systems may help.  

Doorstepping differs from door knocking in a few different ways. Doorstepping provides the home owner notice of their arrival and monetary incentive is not the goal, but to facilitate discussion. In China a doorstepping intervention created a significant 12.5% increase in recycling rate (Dai et al., 2015). Their script was adapted from previous work on recycling (Dai et al., 2015). Mickaël (2014) forewarned that more efficient waste management on part of the individual requires more reflective and brainstorming capacities. This may be why doorstepping increases RM.

Games have often been used as an effective, enjoyable learning tool in schools, and a Kinect game focused on recycling had a similar effect, with boys preferring to play competitively and girls collaboratively (Ibánez & Wang, 2015). According to SDT, the more fun recycling can be made, the longer the behaviour will be sustained.

If knowledge is a barrier, Matthew or Julia could print out educational resources or watch a documentary. Matthew could have a discussion about Julia about what she thinks of recycling in general, or brainstorm how she could make recycling more interesting. If worse comes to worse, Matthew could occasionally reward Julia.

Figure 7. A rubbish dump in Germany. One day, will these have reduced in size worldwide?

Conclusion[edit | edit source]

There are many different models and theories to help understand household RM and how to increase it, although SDT and IMB are the most parsimonious RM theories according to self-report research. Across the literature, it appears that the most important influences on RM are convenience, knowledge of the importance of and how to recycle, self efficacy and intrinsic motivation. When it comes to increasing RM, self efficacy and convenience may be influenced positively or negatively depending on the technologies and methods available to recycle, so Mickaël (2014) advised that while taking individual responsibility for recycling behaviors is important, that responsibility remains on governments to implement effective environmental conservation programs for change on a larger scale . As time passes the need increases in urgency. "Industrialized countries must face the formidable task of breaking the bond between economic growth and the environmental impact of this consumption and waste production.".

See also[edit | edit source]

  • Pay as You Throw [PAYT] - an interesting initiative in parts of the US, Europe and Asia where participants pay a fee based on the quantity of landfill presented for collection. Despite risk of illegal dumping, it has increased recycling rates by 40% and reduced landfill by 30%.

References[edit | edit source]

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Pelletier, L. G., Dion, S., Tuson, K. & Green-Demers, I. (1999). Why Do People Fail to Adopt Environmental Protective Behaviors? Toward a Taxonomy of Environmental Amotivation. Journal of Applied Social Psychology29(12), 2481-2504.

Rhodes, R.E., Beauchamp, M.R., Conner, M., de Bruijn, G.-J., Kaushal, N., Latimer-Cheung, A. (2015). Prediction of Depot-Based Specialty Recycling Behavior Using an Extended Theory of Planned Behavior. Environment and Behavior, 47(9), doi: 10.1177/0013916514534066

Scott, A. (2014). Dialing back on cell phone waste. Chemical & Engineering News92(35), 30-33.

Seacat, J. D., & Northrup, D. (2010). An information–motivation–behavioral skills assessment of curbside recycling behavior. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 30(4), 393-401. doi: 10.1016/j.jenvp.2010.02.002

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Tsaur, R.-C. (2014). Analysis of the relationships among motivation to recycle, willingness to recycle, and satisfaction with recovery stations in Taiwan. WSEAS Transactions on Environment and Development, 10, pp. 26-34. Retrieved from:

Vogt, J., Nunes, K.R.A. (2014). Recycling behaviour in healthcare: Waste handling at work. Ergonomics, 57(4), pp. 525-535. doi: 10.1080/00140139.2014.887786

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Zen, I.S., Noor, Z.Z., Yusuf, R.O. (2014). The profiles of household solid waste recyclers and non-recyclers in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Habitat International, 42, pp. 83-89. doi: 10.1016/j.habitatint.2013.10.010

External links[edit | edit source]