American households generate millions of tons of excess municipal waste that could and should be recycled. Instead, these items are needlessly incinerated or discarded—outcomes that have major consequences for our climate and environment. For decades, environmentalists and social scientists have worked to improve household and municipal recycling rates using incentive programs (e.g., bottle return) and educational interventions. These activities have resulted in modest improvement to household recycling rates nationally, but recent trends suggest rates may be stagnating at around 34 percent.
Moreover, global waste production trends are predicted to continue a pattern of rapid growth—possibly even tripling by 2100, while additional landfill space will become increasingly difficult to develop in light of tightening regulations and negative views about landfills. These disparate trends suggest that the United States may soon face an impending trash crisis if effective strategies to reduce discarded waste are not implemented. Add to this growing concern over climate change, which methane and particulates from discarded or incinerated waste contributes to, and the waste problem simply can no longer be ignored.
Reducing waste production and increasing recycling must begin at the community level. Educating residents about recycling, changing community norms to support recycling, providing low cost and convenient recycling opportunities, de-incentivizing trash disposal and enforcing penalties for illicit trash dumping represent just a few of the activities best supported and managed by local municipal governments.
Unfortunately, few communities have historically invested sufficient resources to effectively support recycling amongst their residents. This reality, coupled with the fact that trash disposal is relatively convenient and often well subsidized, leaves many residents with the unsurprising view that their community does not value recycling.
For change to occur, communities must create policies and provide resources to their residents to motivate and support recycling efforts. Fortunately, emerging studies are now beginning to provide empirical evidence to develop best practices.
A recent project published in the Journal of Environmental Psychology, which examined recycling rates across 245 communities in Massachusetts, highlights several areas where community investment in recycling will likely lead to significant improvement in outcomes. Using data collected over a five-year period by the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection combined with follow-up interviews conducted with individual town managers, heads of public works and public health departments, co-author Nicholas Boileau and I identified several community policies, practices and resources that significantly affect municipal recycling rates.
Among the findings, three concrete actions emerged that municipal governments should strongly consider implementing to reduce recycling barriers and promote this environmentally friendly behavior in a sustainable way.
The most effective strategy for enhancing municipal recycling rates was having a pay-as-you-throw trash (PAYT) program within a community. With PAYT, residents pay a fee either per trash bag or per bin of waste disposed, but are not typically charged for recycled materials. In our study, communities implementing PAYT demonstrated an average of 8 percent greater rates of municipal recycling compared to municipalities without PAYT. This figure represents averages based upon a proportion of the overall tonnage of waste disposed in a community.
While 8 percent seems modest, if, at the time this study was conducted, all Massachusetts communities were implementing PAYT, it could have resulted in several hundred thousand additional tons of trash being recycled instead of discarded, not to mention millions of tons if adopted further in communities nationwide.
It is important to note that strategies like PAYT are not without challenges. To increase buy-in, municipalities must thoroughly vet programs with key community stakeholders,including residents. It is also imperative to enforce and penalize illicit dumping of waste; however, evidence suggests occurrences of illicit dumping may be minimal when PAYT is implemented. Municipalities should also consider taking an incremental approach to implementing PAYT. Initiating a PAYT program with a lower cost per unit of household waste will likely be viewed positively, allowing for future costs to be gradually adjusted upward as the program becomes more established.
In addition to implementing PAYT, our study also found when residents must pay for recycling, those towns reported significantly lower rates compared to towns where recycling did not cost residents additional money. As such, communities should evaluate any cost burden residents bear for household recycling and seek to reduce or eliminate them to the extent possible. Funds collected through implementation of PAYT might even be used to help subsidize recycling.
Finally, informational resources were found to affect municipal recycling rates. When towns provided residents with clear, concise information on the logistics of recycling (e.g., when, where, what, how) they reported significantly higher rates than towns without informational resources. Providing information to residents is a low-cost strategy. By mailing recycling guidelines to all residents, especially newly relocated households, municipalities not only provide useful information but also clearly show that the community values and supports recycling, which goes a long way in creating positive norms about recycling and changing behavior.