WSU Researcher Finds Changing Recycling Behavior Expensive Challenge

OGDEN, Utah – A small financial incentive encourages residents to increase recycling a small amount, but raising the reward does not increase recycling, and sending out notes of encouragement along with money actually discourages recycling.

Those are the findings of research by Weber State University assistant economics professor Brandon Koford and colleagues from the University of Kentucky: Glenn Blomquist, David Hardesty and Kenneth Troske.

The researchers ran a six-month study to determine what factors would influence households to increase their curbside recycling. The study applied three different appeal tactics to 225 household in Lexington, Ken. Some households received a $1 per month incentive; some households received $2 per month and some households received money plus fliers that encouraged recycling through information, guilt or a “feel-good” message. 

Of the three, the single dollar seemed enough to remind households to recycle without being too much.

“Recycling is a pro-social behavior,” Koford said. “If you give someone a token incentive, they may respond by increasing their recycling. We think, if you cross that boundary between pro-social behavior and just pure economic incentive, then people don’t respond as well.”

Doubling the monetary amount or including a written encouragement actually elicited a negative response.

 “When we gave someone $1 and gave them a flier telling them about recycling, that person reduced their recycling in comparison to someone who received no money and no flier,” Koford said.

Even those who increased recycling with the $1 incentive did so in a modest way, just a few pounds per month.

“If we’re thinking about spending large amounts of money, public or private, to change recycling behavior, we have to think very carefully about whether that money is going to have bang for the buck, and our research says — probably not.” Koford explained. “If we want to use our resources wisely, this research confirmed that we need to be careful about assuming that we can change anyone’s recycling behavior in an inexpensive way.”

As an example, Koford mentioned the Environmental Protection Agency’s emphasis on minimizing products’ environmental impact from the beginning of the process instead of at the recycling end.

“We don’t want to focus uniquely on recycling because the more you recycle, the more costly it becomes,” Koford said. “We need to look at the product’s lifecycle to try to extract additional benefits from other parts of the product chain.”

The results of the study were published in the article “Estimating Consumer Willingness to Supply and Willingness to Pay for Curbside Recycling” in the November 2012 issue of the journal “Land Economics.”

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Brandon Koford, assistant professor economics
801-626-6013 ·

Allison Barlow Hess, director of Public Relations
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