“Recycle More” Initiative: Ineffective at Changing Boston Residents’ Recycling Habits - Samantha Feld
“Recycle More” Initiative:
Ineffective at Changing Boston Residents’ Recycling Habits
Waste generated by individuals and communities has substantial consequences to the public health, though residential recycling is a system that can mitigate these consequences and reduce health effects at the population level. According to the United States Environmental Protection Agency, in 2010, Americans generated 250 million tons of trash—more than any other nation -- and recycled 34.1% of this material (1). Individually, the typical American generates 4.43 pounds of trash per person per day, and recycles or composts just 1.51 pounds of this trash (2). Recycling alone will not solve our climate change and environmental health problems. However, recycling saves energy and reduces pollution and greenhouse gas emissions contributing to global climate change by reducing the need to collect new raw materials to produce and distribute additional goods (3). Diverting trash for recycling also reduces that amount of hazardous emissions produced from the waste incineration process, as well as the methane gas produced and emitted from modern landfills (4).
Boston’s residential curbside recycling rate stands at 13%, lagging behind most other Massachusetts municipalities, and many large urban cities across the country (5). Changing individuals’ behaviors to encourage recycling has proved to be a significant challenge. In 2009, following the success of a two-year pilot program, Mayor Thomas Menino and the city of Boston rolled out a single-stream recycling program, where residents can discard all recyclable materials in one 64 gallon city-provided blue bin without having to separate the items out first. The goal of the single-stream recycling program is to increase the number of households who recycle, and in turn reduce costs for the city (6). As part of the distribution of the blue receptacles, mayor Menino launched the “Recycle More” campaign in order to encourage residents to do just that. The “Recycle More” campaign, launched in 2009 and still in effect today, is comprised of PSAs, informational pamphlets, press releases, and advertisements intended to change Bostonians’ waste habits and promote recycling.
FAILURE OF THE HEALTH BELIEF MODEL
Boston’s “Recycle More” program and approach to residential recycling is inherently flawed as it fails to take into account relevant social and behavioral theories. The “Recycle More” program is intended to change behavior on a very individual level. Under the program, each apartment building or home receives a blue bin in which they may discard all of their recyclable items, in conjunction with pamphlets and written information about how, when, when and where to recycle. The program relies on the classic Health Belief Model (HBM), under which people take action after weighing the benefits of a perceived action with the perceived costs. According to this model, an individual will recycle if he or she thinks the negative impacts of failing to recycle (ie global climate change and environmental degradation) will affect him or her and the potential consequences will be severe should they manifest, relative to the barriers or costs that would limit him or her from recycling. In the context of the Health Belief Model, the purpose of the “Recycle More” campaign is to limit the cost or barriers to an individual’s ability to recycle by providing the single-stream bins free of cost, while also providing educational materials to residents discussing the importance of recycling to increase the perceived benefit.
The Health Belief Model is not an effective method by which to base a city-wide recycling campaign. While implementing a single-stream system may make it physically easier for Boston residents to recycle, this intervention has failed in changing behavior on a mass scale. While recycling rates having increased among residents in Boston over the past five years, three years after the “Recycle More” campaign was launched, still less than one in five discarded items is recycled (7). The Health Belief Model assumes that once an individual intends to act, he or she will. It does not take into account any of the cultural, sociopolitical or economic conditions that might impact an individual’s decision to take action (8). If the Health Belief Model could account for why people do or do not recycle, once barriers are reduced (ie through the distribution of bins), then we should see a drastically greater rate of compliance. There is clearly more at play that impacts an individuals’ decision to recycle that the Health Belief Model has not accounted for.
VIOLATES THE MARKETING PARADIGM
Boston’s “Recycle More” program relies primarily on the distribution of the 64 gallon bins to collect recyclable materials, in the hopes that by providing a simplified system and additional knowledge on the process, behavior will change. What the campaign lacks altogether is a strong marketing plan that will appeal to the needs and wants of Boston residents. The traditional method used by the Boston Waste Reduction Division, which implements the city’s recycling program, has been to appeal to city residents to recycle more in order to “make our streets cleaners and city greener,” in the words of mayor Menino. When the mayor unveiled the “Recycle More” initiative in 2009, Jim Hunt, the chief of the mayor’s Environmental and Energy stated: “one of the simplest things we can do in our daily lives to advance our goal to create a greener city is to recycle” (9). Hunt and Menino are appealing to residents to change their behavior for the greater goal of “improving the environment.” The central issue with this approach is that the city is attempting to “sell” Bostonians on the idea of working towards a “greener”, healthier, more sustainable city for the sake of environmental sustainability. With this approach, city officials and public health practitioners are making the assumption that the desire for a greener, healthier city is strong desire among residents, and that it is a need that is strong enough to compel people to change their daily actions in order to achieve it. However, are we certain that a widespread desire among Bostonians for a green, healthy city really is that strong?
The “Recycle More” initiative violates the basic marketing principles, contributing to the failure of the program to change behavior on a large scale. Rather than starting out by examining what it is that Boston residents really want and desire, and then developing a campaign that can seemingly fulfill those needs and wants, “Recycle More” is based on an intuition that everyone will naturally hold environmental sustainability as a strong core value. If sustainability and environmental health is not such a strong value as the city assumes, action on a large scale will not follow.
In addition to failing to capitalize off of marketing techniques to understand the audiences’ desires, and then creating a campaign utilizing this market research, the “Recycle More” initiative has failed to create a brand for itself that resonates with Boston residents. The city’s campaign relies on the fact that providing residents with the single-stream carts, and information about how to partake in the program would change people’s behaviors, and it fails to harness the technique of branding that would compel residents to engage with the initiative. As Evans and Hastings describe in Public Health Branding: Applying Marketing for Social Change, a brand is an identity label that conveys a message – an ideal -- to society (10). According to Evans and Hasting, those who associate themselves with the brand aspire to take on and be part of the ideal, and in turn the brand fulfills the consumer’s aspiration. In this way, the brand is very much a social contract. Imagery is central to perpetuating the brand, including the use of a distinct logo, symbol, image and slogan that is easily recognized and associated with the brand’s ideal (11). From a distinct brand comes action – in this case actively recycling– enabling the consumer to fulfill the “contract” and achieve his or her aspirations. Boston’s “Recycle More” campaign has failed to deliver a clear brand image that would convey residents’ values and aspirations. The slogan “Recycle More” and the accompanying image and logo branded on the side of recycling trucks represents the public health and local government’s ideal, rather than that of the general population. Relying on informational pamphlets and the distribution of the single-stream receptacles, rather than employing a strong marketing strategy has proven to be unsuccessful in creating large scale behavior changes.
INVOKES PSYCHOLOGICAL REACTANCE
A critical flaw of the “Recycle More” campaign is its repeated invoking of psychological reactance. According to Jack Brehm, the psychologist who developed the theory, psychological reactance “is conceived as a motivational state directed toward the reestablishment of the free behaviors that have been eliminated or threated with elimination. Generally, then, a person who experiences reactance will be motivated to attempt to regain the loss of threatened freedoms of whatever methods are available and appropriate” (12). Essentially, when someone is told what to do, that person’s freedoms are being restricted, and according to Brehm, the natural response is not comply so that the individual can maintain a sense of control. Sharon Brehm and Marsha Weintraub demonstrated this innate human response in a study with young children. In the study, two-year-old children were brought into a room full of toys. Some of the toys were made inaccessible by a barrier, and some toys were easily accessible. Even though the children could freely access some of the toys, they were drawn to the toys behind the barrier, demonstrating an attempt to assert their control (13).
Applying Brehm’s work to Boston’s recycling program, psychological reactance is very much at play in the “Recycle More” campaign. The very name of the campaign itself – “Recycle More” – gives an order to residents. In materials provided to residents, including pamphlets, PSA videos and information listed on the city’s website, the information is presented in the form of commands, with strong direction words such as “required”, “must”, “prohibited.” While some of this information, such as what can go into the recycling system and what cannot, is indeed helpful and even necessary to convey, all of the information provided is in a very instructional, authoritative manner that induces psychological reactance. Applying Brehm’s work on psychological reactance, the city of Boston’s approach to recycling is concerning because rather than persuading individuals to recycle, the messaging is doing just the opposite. Instructing individuals to discard their wastes in a certain manner restricts individuals’ freedoms and achieves the opposite effect.
In order to effectively increase recycling rates among Boston residents, I propose a revised intervention and campaign that would counter the three major limitations stated above. This campaign consists of three main components: first, I would mandate city-wide recycling and levy a fine for residents who do not comply in order to catapult a change in social norms. Second, I would conduct market research to determine the overarching desires and needs of Boston residents in order to create a marketing and advertising campaign that meets those desires and compels residents to engage with the program. In my research, I would investigate the different demographics and sub-populations within Boston – such as college students, for example – in order to determine if and how these populations might differ. This would enable me to create a campaign tailored to different demographics, if in fact the core values differ. From this market research, I would launch a marketing and advertising campaign across different mediums to bolster the recycling initiative. Finally, I would use framing techniques so that all messaging – whether from a press release, online content, or ad campaign is conveyed in a manner that will satisfy Bostonian’s core values.
INTERVENTION COMPONENT 1: UTILIZATION OF SOCIAL NORMS THEORY
A core component of my improved recycling initiative for the city of Boston would be to mandate city-wide recycling and levy a fine on any residents or business who are out of compliance with the regulation. The fines would be applied to those who either fail to separate out their recyclables from their trash wastes, or who place trash wastes in the recycling receptacles. Prior to being fined, residents and businesses would receive a warning from the city. Recycling and trash collectors would be able to report particular residents and business who repeatedly and in excess violate the recycling ordinance.
One reason to institute a recycling mandate with fines for non-compliance is purely practice. Failing to comply with the recycling protocols is very for the city as additional resources are needed for sorting (14). However, instituting a fine has another effect in how it changes behavior: it changes social norms. According to the Social Norms Theory, also known as the Social Expectations Theory, change can be created on a massive scale by simply changing social norms. Rather than focusing on individual attitudes, this model changes behavior on a very large scale at the group level. According to Melvin DeFleur and Sandra Ball-Rokeach in Theories of Mass Communication, behavior is shaped directly by the rules of social conduct – often conveyed by the media – recalled by an individual (15). Social expectations theory, then “provides an accounting of social action that is not depended upon cognitive forces and factors that shape and control human behavior,” DeFleur and Ball-Rokeach write (15).
This approach stands in contrast to the Health Belief Model, which cannot account for group-level behavior. According to the Health Belief Model, Boston residents should be regularly recycling once barriers are reduced (ie single-stream bins are provided) and perceived benefits are increased (ie information distributed on the benefits of recycling). Based on Boston’s dismal recycling rates, the Health Belief Model has not been a successful model to base a recycling intervention. Whereas the Health Belief model aims to change attitude in order to change behavior, the Social Norms Theory posits that changing behavior can then change attitude. If recycling becomes a “social norm,” according to the Social Norms Theory, Boston residents will recycle. Mandating recycling and fining people for not complying does just that – it signals to the population that recycling is the norm. As this norm is established, the group’s actions will follow in compliance with the norm. Prior attitudes are irrelevant. San Francisco is a good demonstration of the Social Norms Theory at play. Recycling and composting became compulsory in 2009, the same year that “Recycle More” came into effect. In October of 2012, the mayor of San Francisco announced that 80 of the city’s wastes are now diverted to recycling and composting programs (16). A similar policy change in Boston that leverages the Social Norms Theory also has the potential to dramatically change group-level behavior.
INTERVENTION COMPONENT 2: UTILIZATION OF MARKETING AND ADVERTISING THEORY
In order to increase recycling compliance in Boston, I would determine (perhaps through survey or collaboration with the Boston Waste Reduction Division) which specific sub-populations or geographic regions in Boston were recycling and to what extent, so that I could more effectively establish which populations need to be targeted for increased compliance. Then I would launch a thorough market research effort to create detailed profiles on who my “customers” were. Through this marketing research, which might take the form of focus groups or surveys and questionnaires, I would determine: What does this group of Bostonians value most? What do they need, want and aspire to? How do they view Boston? What are their opinions on the environment and environmental conservation? What do they prize most about Boston or being a Boston resident? Being a diverse city I would create profiles of different demographics of typical Boston residents. I would also give strong attention to the student population in Boston. Though there are so many students in Boston who are not permanent residents, they are an integral group that would contribute to the success—or failure– of a recycling program. Despite their impermanent status, they should not be overlooked.
After conducting thorough market research, I would design and implement a recycling campaign that speaks to the core values articulated by the audience. I would visually demonstrate the core values articulated through branding. I would not create the brand for the campaign—the logo, campaign title, image, symbols – until this market research had been conducted so I was sure to reach the target demographic and hit their core values. Once I create the campaign’s brand, I would employ advertising theory—providing a promise and supporting it visually along with other mediums—in disseminating the brand and the brand’s message on a massive scale. By understanding and capturing the values of the target population, I will be able to create a product (ie a recycling campaign) that will meet that population’s desires.
Other public health campaigns have successfully used marketing and advertising to change behavior, and the learnings from these campaigns have influenced my initiative. When Texan public health officials who were attempting to address highway littering experienced resistance from men between 18 and 24 who resented government interference, officials successfully launched a campaign by specifically targeting this demographic and speaking to their particular interests and values (17). Using popular Texan celebrities as spokespeople, officials marketed the “Don’t Mess With Texas” campaign with a “tough-talking slogan that would also address the unique spirit of Texas pride” (18). The slogan, the logo and the accompanying imagery was created in a manner that those most resistant to behavior-change could embrace and integrate as part of their own image. This strategy was effective in reducing visible roadside litter by 72 percent because officials conducted research to know who they needed to target and how they could reach that population (18).
In “The strategy behind Florida’s ‘truth’ campaign,” Hicks describes how a statewide campaign based on youth-marketing and branding significantly reduced youth smoking rates, from 18.5% to 11.1% among middle school students and from 27.4% to 22.6% among high school students in a two-year period (19). Central to the success of the campaign was the use of modern marketing tools, media buys on the open market, youth involvement in the feedback and creative process, and effective branding (20). “Knowledge was not the problem… We learned that a youth’s reason for using tobacco had everything to do with emotion and nothing to do with rational decision making. Tobacco was a significant, visible, and readily available way for youth to signal that they were in control… [So] Attacking the duplicity and manipulation of the tobacco industry became ‘truth’s’ rebellion,” Hicks writes. The Truth and “Don’t Mess With Texas” campaigns exemplify that knowledge is not enough to change behavior – in the same way that providing Boston residents with single-stream recycling bins and information on recycling is not enough to change behavior. A thoroughly researched marketing strategy that will target the aspirations of the audience is key component to achieve the desired behavior change.
INTERVENTION COMPONENT 3: LIMITING PSYCHOLOGICAL REACTANCE BY FRAMING
In launching an improved recycling campaign in Boston, I would pay critical attention to the way in which the campaign is described and discussed by city officials, public health practitioners, and in the media in order to prevent psychological reactance from the target population. As discussed above, psychological reactance occurs when a person’s freedoms or control is some way limited, and the individual responds by doing the opposite of what was commanded of them, rather than heeding, in order to maintain personal control. The current “Recycle More” campaign is rife with psychological reactants, as it is premised on the local government instructing residents on how they should act. There are, however, methods to deflect and limit psychological reactance. Paul Silvia, for example, describes his two experimental studies in “Deflecting Reactance: The Role of Similarity in Increasing Compliance and Reducing Resistance” which show that when the recipient of a message recognizes similarity from the person giving the message, the message is more persuasive (21). Kevin Hogan, in his book Covert Persuasion: Psychological Tactics and Tricks to Win the Game, further points out that individuals will quickly agree with their current point of view, so in order to get an individual to act the way you would like him or her to, “always discover current beliefs and attitudes so you can affirm them in some way” (22). While this may seem counter-intuitive, to reduce psychological reactance, the target audience’s core beliefs should be reinforced, rather than conflicted.
Hogan’s and Silvia’s insights will inform Boston’s improved recycling campaign. In order to reduce psychological reactance, I will utilize the findings from the above discussed market research to determine the core values of the target population, and our campaign’s marketing and communications will reinforce those values by re-framing the act of recycling. For example, if “family” is found to be a major core value among the target population, I will employ visuals in the marketing and specific language in the recycling campaign that will highlight how recycling will promote and enhance the value of family. If among college students, a key value is determined to be “fun/pleasure,” I would showcase how by recycling, streets and apartments are kept clean, enabling students to have more fun and enjoy the city of Boston. Based on Silvia’s findings on the role of similarity in reducing reactance, I would rely on visuals invoking familiarity, such as quintessential Boston images. In an advertising campaign, I would use “spokespeople” to convey the message who are similar to the target audience (for example students giving the message to other students), and I would use different spokespeople to target different demographics. Using these techniques will effectively limit reactance and thus limit a barrier to getting people to change their actions.
The current “Recycle More” campaign that was launched in 2009 to increase recycling compliance rests on the premise that if the residential recycling process is simplified into a single-stream system, then residents will comply. Current residential rates of recycling show that this premise, rooted in the Health Belief Model, is ineffective. An effective intervention is one that will utilize policy tools to change social norms, in conjunction with effective marketing, advertising, and reactance-reducing techniques that are rooted in an understanding of the target audience’s values. With these tools, there is substantial opportunity to affect the population’s behavior on disposal of recyclable goods.
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