What role has the normalisation of recycling behaviour played in moving towards sustainable consumption?

Thomas, Christine (2011). What role has the normalisation of recycling behaviour played in moving towards sustainable consumption? In: Sustainable Consumption – Towards Action and Impact (2011), International Scientific Conference, 6-8 Nov 2011, Hamburg, Germany.


The central aim of this paper is to explore what lessons can be learnt from research and interventions on recycling, reuse and waste avoidance behaviours in the context of achieving more sustainable consumption. Creating unnecessary waste is unsustainable and reuse, waste avoidance and recycling contribute to consuming more sustainably. But what role has a focus on material waste played in the broader sustainable consumption challenge facing society?
Recycling has moved from a marginal activity to becoming a normalised behaviour in many countries over the past 20 years. In the UK, interventions to influence recycling behaviour have been many and varied and draw from theoretical foundations including social marketing, ‘nudge’, behavioural economics, catalyst behaviours, deliberative engagement, communication and education approaches (Collier et al, 2010). Results from quantitative survey and qualitative research by the author on understanding and evaluating the effectiveness of some of these interventions will be used to inform, through analysis of recycling’s journey to becoming a common behaviour, the question of what waste and recycling behaviours have and can contribute to a more sustainable society.
More recently there has been growing concern that perhaps too much emphasis has been placed on recycling waste as a pro-environmental activity rather than tackling waste avoidance and other sustainable consumption issues. Recycling has been favoured as a small and easy behaviour that can be a ‘first step’ to catalysing other sustainable consumption behaviours. Such positive spillover undoubtedly exists, although the mechanisms and motivations for it have been found to be complex.
However, some studies have found that recycling can ‘absolve’ individuals from an obligation to act in other areas, perhaps by making them think that recycling solves the waste problem or ‘compensates’ for not doing other things. Even within waste behaviours, recycling activity can hinder moves towards the more sustainable activity of reducing waste (Barr, 2007). Crompton (2010) argues that negative spillover or rebound effects are more likely to be found where behaviours are not based on environmental attitudes and values; and cite research findings that individuals with a fairly negative attitude to the environment are more likely to justify their car driving on the basis that they recycle. This paper examines the evidence for where the balance for recycling lies between encouraging or blocking the way towards more sustainable consumption?

• Barr, S. (2007) Factors influencing environmental attitudes and behaviors: a UK case study of household waste management. Environment and Behavior 39 (4) pp435-473
• Crompton T and Thøgersen J (2009) Simple and Painless: the limitations of spillover in environmental campaigning, WWF-UK; available from http://www.wwf.org.uk/what_we_do/campaigning/strategies_for_change
• Collier, Andrea; Cotterill, Andrew; Everett, Tim; Muckle, Rachel; Pike, Tony and Vanstone, Amy (2010) Understanding and influencing behaviours: a review of social research, economics and policy making in Defra, discussion paper published by Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, London UK

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