Recycling is changing: What business needs to know

Recycling is changing: What business needs to know

Recycling items on a table
Shutterstock279photo Studio

The dynamics and demographics associated with recycling are changing as baby boomers age and millennials enter the workforce. Municipalities, retailers, manufacturers and stewardship organizations would benefit from understanding how these changing behaviors are likely to affect the recycling landscape going forward.

Call2Recycle, a North American battery recycler, commissioned a 2016 Nielsen study on recycling in the United States, with powerful insights to inform and establish a successful and enduring recycling program.

Many people view recycling as part of their civic duty, and nearly 75 percent of the U.S. population recycles at least monthly. However, while most people agree that recycling is an important factor in planetary health, attitudes and motivations vary greatly. Understanding these differences is critical for a company such as Call2Recycle, which is trying to encourage more people to recycle batteries.

Its survey identified concerns about toxicity as a driving factor for many recyclers, who worried about waste materials poisoning their water supply, among other impacts. Car batteries generally have been successfully recycled for this reason, not only because of toxicity concerns, but also because of the recovered batteries’ economic value.

Carl Smith, president and CEO of Call2Recycle, explained in a recent GreenBiz webcast the big difference between green behaviors and green attitudes. Understanding and closing the gap between a person knowing that they should do something and actually doing it is the primary challenge in recycling.

Knowing the categories 

Call2Recycle segments recycling across two main categories: mainstream and non-mainstream. Mainstream materials tend to have a longer history of recycling, to be more recyclable and to be more monolithic. Non-mainstream materials tend to be more complex and difficult to recycle, and thus their benefits to recycling processors are not as clear and can often be more difficult to capture.

For those seeking to expand the proportion of waste materials that are recycled, there are two basic imperatives: to increase participation in recycling programs, and to move non-mainstream materials into mainstream recycling channels. Some barriers exist. For instance, some non-mainstream materials, such as batteries and paint, are hazardous, and thus challenging to move into mainstream systems. However, Smith explained that two factors exceed all others in importance: accessibility and convenience.

Between the two, accessibility tends to be a much more objective measure, whereas convenience relates to a person’s perception of the ease of recycling. For instance, a recycling center around the corner from you may be accessible, but if it’s only open for limited hours, it may be quite inconvenient. By contrast, a rural general store that may be a bit of a drive from your home, but is a hub of other community activity, can be convenient. Recycling behaviors are tied very closely to both measures.

In general, convenience wins out over accessibility in driving recycling participation, but depends on the overarching motivations and attitudes of the recycler. Call2Recycle’s survey found that 60 percent of respondents recycle plastic bottles and containers. However, glass was the wild card, and its recycling rates declined sharply in areas where curbside collection was not available.

Most curbside programs don’t accept non-mainstream materials. Thus, a person must be much more invested to pursue recycling of such materials. This can lead to a hoarding effect, where people keep appliances, batteries and other non-mainstream materials for extended periods because it's inconvenient to turn them in. Retailers have become a major factor in adding convenience to recycling options. Many collect plastic bags, light bulbs and even paint.

Smith noted that even as behavior is closely tied to convenience and accessibility, the profile of a "recycler" is changing and variable. Further, motivations to recycle are driven by core values, priorities, emotions and life stage. Integrating demographics with motivations is key to optimizing recycling.

Profiling a recycler

Smith noted that recyclers cross demographic groups, and cautions against over-generalization. For instance, people who consistently purchase green or sustainable goods are not necessarily the same people who recycle.

Over the last decade, the main profile of a battery recycler has shifted, and it’s no longer just soccer moms who participate. The most recent data show that males recycle slightly more than females, so the base assumption might be to target this group. However, Smith advises overlaying values and motivations with demographics to build a richer picture of the groups of people most likely to recycle. The "why" a person recycles is integral to the profile.

From its survey, Call2Recycle identified eight primary demographic categories of recyclers and potential recyclers. While the ultimate goal would be to target all of these, the company chose initially to focus its efforts on the core 20 percent of people it viewed as most likely to convert favorable attitudes into behaviors.

Leo Raudys, owner of Raudys Strategies, also offered strategic insight during the webcast. Raudys echoed Smith’s assertion that a sustainable recycling program that delivers value to customers and shareholders requires an understanding of the target participants. He noted that millennials are driving change in this area. Experiences matter more to millennials than to previous generations, so making things fresh and fun is key. Millennials talk a lot about values being important, but this is not always reflected in how they behave as consumers. In this respect, they are no different from consumers of earlier generations.

By way of example, Raudys pointed to the 2017 YouGov BrandIndex, comparing the current top millennial brands with the rising top millennial brands. Old stalwart brands such as Coke, Pepsi and Unilever are absent from both lists.

The brands millennials favor, including YouTube, Facebook and Google, are more related to experiences than things. That said, millennials’ rising brands — including Uber, Lyft and Snapchat — feature accessibility and convenience, but are not strongly associated with the values millennials say they espouse. Raudys noted that this information can feel somewhat conflicting, which demands customized thinking.

Messaging and motivation strategies

Smith observed that recycling messages typically have been communicated through blanket statements: Protect the environment, save the planet. This approach has not been very effective. People are motivated to make changes that affect their personal environment more than they are for the broader landscape, such as climate change.

Yet when a message speaks to a core value, consumers prioritize it in their lives and understand how they are helping the environment. Messaging campaigns should help consumers to see their individual contributions as part of a bigger sustainability movement for their families and communities. Campaigns should also adopt tailored strategies to address people’s different motivations.

Raudys identified these additional strategies for motivating consumers to recycle:

  1. Put money in their pockets — whether it’s real or an illusion doesn’t matter. People want to be rewarded for recycling, even if only emotionally.
  2. Build for the long haul and don’t break your promises that you’ll be there when they need you. Recycling is all about habit. Nothing irritates customers more than building a habit and then not having the support there for them.
  3. Create experiences that are memorable and fun. This can contribute to employee engagement as well.
  4. Treat internal and external customers with equal levels of respect. "Suboptimal execution is the great program killer," he said.

Raudys highlighted Recyclebank, The North Face’s Clothes the Loop program and H&M’s clothing recycling program as examples of well-designed strategies. He particularly noted Madewell’s denim recycling program, wherein customers bring an old pair of jeans to any retail store and receive $20 off a new pair. The program is front and center in Madewell stores and features displays that show what becomes of old jeans. Sales clerks' talk make the program part of the overall sales experience.

Key takeaways

  • Recyclers exist on a shifting spectrum that encompasses demographics, life stage, motivation and attitudes. Targeting groups solely on the basis of their demographics limits success.
  • To influence recycling behavior change, it is critical to expand awareness, enhance recycling literacy and tap into motivations and values.
  • Millennials value experiences.
  • An oversaturation in environmental messaging is affecting consumer behavior. Personalized, targeted messaging is critical.