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How to Boost Recycling

Reward consumers with discounts, deals, and social connections

Many Americans are confused about recycling. The author argues that a combination of community support groups, social incentives, and monetary rewards for participation can help. Photo courtesy of Bas Emmen on Unsplash.

You finish that last sip of morning coffee and stare at the empty paper cup in your hand. Should it go into the recycling bin, compost, or be landfilled, or incinerated?

You are not alone. Most Americans are confused about recycling, and the crisis driven by China’s decision to stop accepting most foreign scrap material is worsening the problem. At this point it’s hard to be sure that items put in the recycling bin are recycled.

Research shows that more often than not, Americans give up trying to sort their recyclables. Or they engage in wishful recycling, tossing nonrecyclables into the bin. Even so, most waste never gets that far. People feel intimidated by the task.

The average American generates about 4.5 pounds of waste each day. Only 1.5 pounds of it is recycled or composted. This means that over an average lifetime of 78.7 years, one American would send 67,000 pounds of waste to landfills. That’s more than twice the weight of a cruise ship anchor.

Although many communities and advocates have adopted regulations and action plans centered on moving toward a circular economy, major barriers still make it hard for individuals to reduce, reuse, and recycle. Existing policies have been developed based on insights from engineering and economics, and give little consideration of how human behavior at the individual level fits into the system.

My colleagues and I use behavior science to foster goals ranging from energy conservation to community solidarity. In a recent paper, economist Marieke Huysentruyt, Ph.D. candidate Emma Barnosky, and I uncovered promising solutions to the recycling crisis driven by personal benefits and social connections.

Why recycling is so hard

Why is getting Americans to recycle more so challenging? First, many people don’t understand waste problems and recycling strategies. Few are aware of the environmental problems waste causes, and most have a hard time connecting individual actions to those problems.

Most people don’t know where their waste goes, whether it includes recyclables or what can be made from them. They may know what day to put out curbside trash and recycling, but are unsure which materials the companies accept. In a 2019 survey of 2,000 Americans, 53% erroneously believed greasy pizza boxes could be recycled, and 68% thought the same for used plastic utensils.

Complex guidelines can make it hard for consumers to recycle correctly.
Town of Danvers, Mass.

Another 39% of respondents cited inconvenience and poor access to recycling facilities as major barriers. California pays a 5- to 10-cent redemption fee for each beverage container, but the facilities often are inconvenient to reach. For example, the closest to my home in Los Angeles is eight miles away, which can involve driving for an hour or more. That’s not worth it for the few cans my family produces.

Most U.S. consumers are opposed to pollution, of course, but research shows that they seldom view themselves as significant contributors. As taxpayers, they hold local governments responsible for recycling. Many are not sure what happens next, or whether their actions make a difference.

Motivation matters

What can be done to address these barriers? Better messaging, such as emphasizing how waste can be transformed into new objects, can make a difference.

But as I argue in my 2018 book, The Green Bundle: Pairing the Market With the Planet, information alone can’t drive sustainable behavior. People must feel motivated, and the best motivations bundle environmental benefits with personal benefits, such as economic rewards, increased status, or social connections.

In a 2014 survey, 41% of respondents said that money or rewards were the most effective way to get them to recycle. Take-back systems, such as deposits on cans and bottles, have proven effective in some contexts. Such systems need to be more convenient, however.

Returning bottles directly to stores is one possibility, but novel strategies are being deployed across the country. “Pay-as-you-throw” policies charge customers based on how much solid waste they discard, thus incentivizing waste reduction, reuse, and more sustainable purchasing behavior. Recyclebank, a New York company, rewards people for recycling with discounts and deals from local and national businesses.

Status and support

Social status also motivates people. The zero-waste lifestyle has become a sensation on social media, driving the rise of Instagram influencers such as Bea Johnson, Lauren Singer, and Kathryn Kellogg, who are competing to leave behind the smallest quantity of waste. Visibility of conservation behavior matters, and could be a powerful component in pay-as-you-throw schemes.

Minimalist Bea Johnson claims that the aero-waste lifestyle requires less of everything: less waste and less recycling.

It’s also nice to have support. Mutual help organizations, or community-led groups, trigger behavioral change through social connections and face-to-face interactions. They have the potential to transfer empowering information and sustain long-term commitment.

One famous example is Alcoholics Anonymous, which relies on member expertise instead of instructions from health care specialists. Similarly, Weight Watchers focuses on open communication, group celebration of weight loss progress, and supportive relationships among members.

French startup Yoyo, founded in 2017, is applying this strategy to recycling. Yoyo connects participants with coaches, who can be individuals or businesses, to help them sort recyclables into orange bags. Coaches train and encourage sorters, who earn points and rewards such as movie tickets for collecting and storing full Yoyo bags.

The process also confers status, giving sorters positive social visibility for work that is ordinarily considered thankless. And because rewards tend to be local, Yoyo’s infrastructure has the potential to improve members’ community connections, strengthening the perceived and actual social power of the group.

This system offers a convenient, social, incentive-based approach. In two years the community has grown to 450 coaches and 14,500 sorters and collected almost 4.3 million plastic bottles.

Such novel behavior-based programs alone cannot solve back-end aspects of the global waste crisis, such as recycling capacity and fluctuating scrap material prices. But our research has shown that by leveraging technology and human behavior, behavioral science can encourage people to recycle much more effectively than simplistic campaigns or slogans.

Magali (Maggie) Delmas, is Professor of Management, Institute of the Environment & Sustainability, Anderson School of Management, University of California, Los Angeles. This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license.


  1. Cory Holliday | | #1

    Excellent article Maggie. Here in rural TN we have several barriers including a complete lack of local recycling facilities for plastics. We travel 20 miles to the nearest collection centers in a larger town, but we have stopped recycling plastics once we discovered that it was being shipped long distances. I have failed to receive good information on exactly where the recycling goes and currently feel more responsible putting our plastics into the local landfill where I know they will not contribute to the micro plastics and plastic ocean waste problems.

    Any thoughts, tips, advice on loss through shipping/moving recyclable goods. I have read some staggering figures about ocean waste from recycling shipments and it has made me a bit gun shy.



  2. Matt V | | #2

    Part of the problem is that recycling programs can be totally different in different parts of the country. People hear of a problem somewhere, and assume it applies to them. And sometimes even the city doesn't have clear guidelines about what can/should be recycled.

    There should be some requirement on manufacturers to make their packaging recyclable, or at least accurately label it. For example "53% erroneously believed greasy pizza boxes could be recycled" might not happen if pizza companies didn't prominently print "Corrugated Recycles" and the recycling symbol on their boxes. They should have instructions: clean parts of the box can be recycled, but otherwise it should go in the compost or trash.

  3. Keith Gustafson | | #3

    the biggest problem right now is there is no market for recyclables. Recycling ends up in the landfill

    Unless the current climate of political selfishness ends and we pass some requirements for recycled content, the best recycling program in the world would be for naught.

    I buy 100 percent recycled paper towels and tp for work. I mean, IMO, if it cannot be recycled, it really ought to be recycled......

    1. Matt V | | #4

      The recycling center in my town is able to sell recyclables despite the current market. One advantage they cite is an infrared sorting machine that does a better job of separating types of plastic.

      Aluminum is always valuable, and glass and paper seem to do OK as well.

      If everyone woke up tomorrow and knew exactly what to recycle or not, that would go a long way towards making recyclables a more valuable product. It's hard to fix the problem on the consumer side, but that's what this article gets at. Fixing the problem at the recycling center with better technology is another option. And increasing demand for recycled material is another option. I think we probably need a combination of all these options to really decrease the amount of material that gets wasted.

  4. Kurt Hanushek | | #5

    Plastics is the real mess in recycling. There are many types of plastic, some more easily recycled than others. On top of that, manufactures make a horrible mix. A bottle can easily be made of one plastic with a cap of another, with an inner seal in the cap of a third and of course there is the label, probably a fourth.

    The manufactures need to be forced to take responsibility for insuring that there products are recycled. Printing a recycling symbol on it is not being responsible. Recycling has to start with product design all the way to the collection on processing of recyclables. If it cost them big time to produce a difficult or impossible to recycle product, they would make recyclability a high priority.

    1. Jeff_LDC | | #6

      Kurt... you nailed this.

      I really appreciate this article and what the author it trying to do, and it would help... a little... but not nearly to the extent we need.

      All one has to do is look around at recycling collection centers, and land-fills, and it becomes obvious that for whatever reason, the large majority of people are not willing to take the time (or energy) to recycle or compost their waste. And although that's unfortunate, they also shouldn't have to0.

      To really make the difference that is required, even though many don't like to admit it, top-down regulation NEEDS to be put into place requiring ALL manufactures to be responsible for the entire life cycle of their products.

      And, as you eluded to, because take-back programs and infrastructure for recycling innovation would be costly to manufacturers, bi0-based and longer lasting products would begin to look far more appealing to them than other "disposable" or mildly recyclable options.

      There is so much potential in the area of biomimicry, but until there is a financial incentive to dig into it, it will just be on the back-burner while we continue to trash 90+% of what we produce.

      This is the way of the future, there is no escaping it. The far majority of people will only do so much on their own to take responsibility for their impact on the system as a whole, and unfortunately, "so much" is not very much at all.

      It would be wise for anyone concerned about such issues to dig into the potential presidential candidates to determine which are considering such options, which are content with the current environmentally malignant corporate model, and which are more or less beholden to corporate manufacturers which like to retract from any regulations that would require the to change their current "disposable" business model more or less.

      Imagine... an economy where the mindful consumer didn't have to wonder about the negative environmental impacts of the products they purchased because they knew that the Manufacturers were held to a very high standard by federal law, and thus could consume based solely on needs and quality of said products, while not having to worry about where it came from, how to recycle it, etc.. And at the same time, the consumers that currently don't recycle or compost anything, or give any thought to the potential negative impacts of the products they purchase..... would also be consuming responsibly, not because they suddenly care, but because the manufacturers have switched over to a far more sustainable model of cradle to grave cradle to cradle production.

      This is likely our only hope for a viable future of ever-growing economies and consumerism... We just need the political will to incorporate it into our capitalistic model.

      And yes, this would impact business... but not negatively like so many opponents claim. Like any required change, It would require a remodeling of current processes which would ultimately lead to a shift in manufacturing infrastructure and the types of jobs required for such a robust transition. For every job displaced (which is always the reality of any type of policy shift) and new one would replace it.

      I would suggest that MORE jobs would be created than displaced due to the additional protocols required to be put into place, however, regardless, this economic model needs to become a reality, and we will simply have to find a way to make it work to retain a quality environment and a life worth living.

      To the future!

  5. klarkwhite | | #7

    Just today I read an article that the main problem of recycling is that garbage producers do not bring garbage to processing enterprises. Unfortunately, not everyone follows waste management. But taught me to treat my waste wisely. This is the key to environmental friendliness. Do you comply with waste management? All the best!

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