Recycling Motivation: A look at the factors shaping recycling habits
The United States generates more solid waste each year than any than any other nation. The total cost of disposing of this waste has reached nearly $75 billion annually. Only 17% of the municipal solid waste is recycled in the United States, compared with 40% in Japan and up to 60% in some Western European countries (Oskamp et al., 1995). America’s landfill system for disposing of this waste is quickly reaching its limits, and managing this waste is becoming increasingly costly and problematic.
There are two solutions available for this problem: reduce the amount of waste originally generated or to increase recycling (Porter et al., 1995). In focusing on the second solution to this problem, I have chosen to investigate how factors such as a person’s age, income, gender, education, region and that region’s environmental public policy affect their attitudes and behaviors towards recycling.
A key to understanding how these factors affect a person’s attitudes and behaviors towards recycling is to determine how strongly their behaviors are dependant on their attitudes. Concern about the environment has been identified, as measured in public opinion polls, as a concern of a clear majority of the American public (Guagnano & Markee, 1995). However, since the 1970’s the connection between proenvironmental attitudes and recycling attitudes has fallen to statistically insignificant levels.
Because more people are recycling today, and doing so for more reasons than just altruistic concern for the environment, the relationship between general environmental concern and recycling seems to have diminished or disappeared (Schultz et al., 1995).
Because of this lack of correlation we cannot use general environmental concern as a predictor of recycling behavior. However, relevant specific attitudes have consistently been found to correlate with recycling behavior. Research findings regarding the relationship between recycling attitudes and recycling behaviors have been generally consistent with general attitude-behavior theories, showing a significant, though relatively small relationship (Schultz et al., 1995).
In explaining what ideas other than pure environmentalism shape people’s recycling attitudes Huhtala sites reasons given in his surveys which were not purely environmental. Recycling was also seen to represent “a viable alternative for a throw-away society’s wasteful lifestyle” (1999).
In addition to the growing number of materials being recycled today, there have been changes in the typical types of recycling programs, from short-term campaigns and drop off programs, to voluntary curb-side collection, and later to community wide recycling, with recycled materials either being separated by the household or commingled (placed in a single container, rather than separated by type).
Despite procedural differences, most recycling programs have one thing in common – reliance on individual participation (Shultz et al.,1995). In attempting to develop reliable and sustainable ways to reduce the amount of trash buried in landfills, scientists, policy-makers, and community leaders need to understand the factors that lead people to recycle.
One specific attitude that has been clearly shown to affect behavior is satisfaction (or lack thereof) with local environmental conditions and governmental environmental policies. Individuals’ dissatisfaction with the condition of the environment and their expectation of positive changes in the quality of their environment predicted their subsequent level of participation in environmental activism. So, regarding the connection between attitude and behavior, dissatisfaction or annoyance with environmental problems can be seen as a motivational factor leading to activism. It can also prove to be a significant determinant of environmentally friendly behaviors, such as recycling (Pelletier et al., 1996).
Dissatisfaction with governmental policies can also prove to be a significant motivator of environmentally friendly behaviors and activism.
Lower levels of satisfaction with government environmental policies were associated with the more self-determined forms of motivation underlying environmentally friendly behaviors (e.g., frequency of purchasing environmentally friendly products, conserving, and recycling) (Pelletier et al., 1996).
The broadest factor affecting recycling is the region of the nation in which the subjects live. And while geographic region does not appear to have consistent additive effects, it does interact with other sociodemographic variables to influence environmental concern.
Of the respondents, to Guagnano and Markee’s survey on regional differences, those who were over 65 years of age had significantly higher levels of trust in business, industry and politicians to protect .