6 Secrets to Turn Non-Recycling Residents into Active Recyclers

Posted by Julie Huang on Tuesday, April 25, 2017 10:53 AM

Happy old couple holding a recycling binOnly half (51%) of the American population recycles every day, while a third (36%) recycles occasionally. Unfortunately, the rest (13%) do not recycle at all, according to Ipsos Public Affairs. While 13% may not seem like a large number, when that translates into approximately 42,000,000 Americans – the impact is serious.

“Recycling is a behavior. Much like exercising or eating healthily, people often engage in this behavior less than they should”, according to Brian Iacoviello, an assistant psychiatry professor at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York City.

However, humans are hardwired to respond more to instant gratification. This means these non-recyclers often don’t see the immediate benefits (and consequences) of not recycling and it can be challenging to make the connection between their daily behaviors and the long-term effects.

Don’t let that discourage you though!

Here's how to motivate residents to recycle:

  1. Recycling should be convenient (and cheap)!

If it’s not easy, it’s less likely to be done, especially if there’s no immediate benefit or consequence.

“Obviously if the infrastructure is not there, you can’t expect people to participate in a program that doesn’t exist,” says Jessica Nolan, associate psychology professor at the University of Scranton and previous municipal recycling director, “… we know that convenience is one of the strongest predictors of whether or not somebody will participate”.

Making recycling more convenient can include:

  • Substituting drop-off programs for curbside pick-up
  • Making drop-off sites more convenient by partnering with grocery stores, local businesses, and other places that residents are already visiting
  • Switching to single-stream recycling
  • Use Recycle Coach to provide personalized collection schedules and an item disposal search tool via mobile and web
  1. Target your recycling message and make your message motivational.

Your recycling message often doesn’t reach everyone even though you broadcasted it to your entire community. Those who are already active recyclers will listen when you encourage them to recycle more and reduce contamination. However, non-recyclers who don’t recycle at all have no use for that information. For them, you must provide enough motivation to start recycling in the first place, which is much easier if they know why it makes such a big difference when they toss that one recyclable can into the trash.

For example, The Recycling Guide indicates that 1 recycled tin can would save enough energy to power a TV for 3 hours.  EcoCycle indicates that if the U.S. can hit a recycling rate of 75% by 2030, it would create over 1 million new jobs. 

Furthermore, church or religious leaders, businesses, and other influencers in your community may resonate better with some non-recyclers, and hearing the recycling message from them could make an enormous difference.

  1. Promote recycling every way you can.

If the side of your recycling trucks and public recycling bins are not encouraging recycling, they should be!

It’s known that information is more effective, and more likely acted upon, when repeated. Therefore, when residents – especially non-recyclers – see this prompt to recycle continuously, it could ingrain that message so much so that they’ll think about it next time they’re about to toss out a recyclable item.

You could also promote recycling through:

  • Mass media such as social media, press releases, newspapers, TV, radio, and local blogs. Recycle Coach includes a complete Promotional Toolkit to help you succeed promotional-wise.
  • Recycling education programs in schools
  • Meetings with local neighborhood groups, who may be able to better convey the message to non-recyclers due to their connection with them

The more often and the more channels non-recyclers see your recycling message, the more likely they can be convinced to recycle.

  1. Incentivize and reward.

Appeal to the non-recycler’s sense of immediate positive gain and reward them for positive behaviors (recycling properly).

Incentives can include:

  • Deposit returns. According to Call2Recycle, “the average number of bottles out of 10 that are recycled rises from 4.38 in states … with no water bottle deposit law… to 8.34 if the state has a water bottle deposit law”.
  • Working with local businesses so residents can earn free products for their recycling efforts – for example, recycling coffee cups for free coffee.
  • Integrate a program like RecyclingPerks where residents receive points for recycling during their collection days and then can redeem their points for rewards from local retailers.
  • Cash prizes for randomly selected residents who put out full, contaminate-free recycling bins out for curbside collection.
  • Or as Nolan says, “if you see recycling as a value-added activity, why not charge a little more for trash [services] and then make recycling [pickup] free?”
  1. Get your active recyclers to encourage non-recycling friends and family members.

This is another way of getting your message across using a different voice. In general, people are largely influenced by the pressure they receive from friends and family. A survey by GfK Custom Research North America for SC Johnson revealed that 25% of respondents said “people I know encouraging me to take action” is a major influence on their behavior to help the environment.

For non-recyclers, simply knowing that their family, friends, and neighbors are actively recycling increases the chances that they’ll start recycling too. This is backed by the survey which showed 26% of respondents saying “seeing people I know take action” is a major influence.

 Percentage of people who say the following are a major influence to help the environment


  1. Give feedback from your municipality.

The GfK survey reports the overwhelming majority (75%) say they feel good when they take steps to help the environment. The more that people see recycling as effective and helping the environment, the more likely they’ll participate. When members of focus groups in Waltham, MA, were asked what would be most likely to motivate residents of the City to recycle, both, recyclers and non-recyclers indicated that feedback from the City on the amount recycled and money saved would be motivational.

Doing these things will encourage non-recyclers to start recycling and perform more environmentally friendly behaviors. It will require consistent, ongoing effort by your municipality, local businesses, key influencers, and other members of the community. However, once residents start recycling, they are likely to continue – helping create a more sustainable future.


logo-green.png About Recycle Coach: Recycle Coach specializes in digital solutions for municipal and private waste management services to effectively educate and engage residents. Our technology platforms for web, mobile, and digital assistants focus on education and encouragement to help residents to be better recyclers, with the goal of inspiring positive and lasting change in communities around the world. It is our constant innovation and scalability of services that allow us to meet the needs of over 3000 communities across the USA, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and more.  

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Topics: Recycling Education, Recycling Outreach

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