We need to move away from cut-and-paste approaches to recycling

Recycling campaigns aren’t working. A closer look at ROI can change that.

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Technological innovation is reshaping waste management and recycling. The range of materials that can be recycled is expanding, and there is increased awareness of the potential for innovative businesses at the forefront of the circular economy. 

Unfortunately, recycling campaigns aren’t working. Globally, recycling rates have stagnated at around 8.6%.

The situation for plastics is similarly disappointing. Only 9% of plastic waste is recycled, according to the OECD, with 22% mismanaged and ending up in dumpsites, burn pits or the environment. The rest is either incinerated or ends up in a landfill.

While we invest in uncovering new technologies to process or replace plastics, we must not lose sight of the importance of everyday consumer habits. To truly advance recovery and recycling of plastic waste, we need to invest in both.

So, why can’t we move the needle when it comes to recycling? 

Relevant Sustainable Development Goals

Firstly, we are not investing enough in behavior change.

However, we recognize that deeper investments will only become a reality when we are able to demonstrate the clear economic and environmental benefits of changing recycling behaviors. At the moment, there is little information that can help justify increased spending.

Preliminary studies conducted in Argentina and Indonesia by The Circulate Initiative and Delterra – a non-profit organization that shares our commitment to solving complex environmental challenges in emerging economies – show that boosting recycling behaviors can cost less than the value of resulting new recyclables, and is up to 80% cheaper than technology solutions.

Furthermore, the payback from initial costs for behavior change can be as little as two to four years. 

Encouraging pro-recycling behaviors does have a quantifiable ROI, and can unlock tremendous potential throughout the system.

“Recycling can and should be a profit-making business.”

We need to build up a database of recycling behavior ROI – including market case studies and analysis of investment scenarios for community engagement – that governments can use. 

We are encouraging all stakeholders to join us in strengthening the business case for investing in behavior change.

In the coming months, we plan to release tools to enable other organizations to analyze their own data and case studies to derive practical lessons and tactics that can provide the greatest return on investment.

Data and insights are not only essential in helping us change behavior, they also demonstrate that recycling as an industry is worth the investment. 

Investing in recycling behavior change should not be viewed as a sunk cost.

Recycling can and should be a profit-making business – one that can deliver a return on investment in as little as two to four years. 


Local context

At the same time, governments need to change their approach.

Too often, investment is directed to easily replicable one-size-fits-all communication campaigns, without analyzing what works and what does not.

It is important to look at local data to understand a community’s motivations and values, and tailor campaigns accordingly.

Rapid test-and-learn approaches can also uncover the best locally-appropriate solutions, avoiding expensive and ineffective interventions.

As part of Delterra’s recycling project in Olavarria, a mid-sized city in Argentina, a two-minute video consisting of footage from sorting and composting plants was used to substitute door-to-door visits adopted in the first trial for greater cost efficiency and scalability.

However, this strategy failed, leading the team to conclude that the face-to-face touchpoint in the first activation was critical to improving recycling participation. Further, they noted that the activation phase was crucial, in that when it is not done right, it was harder to recover later.

The team quickly pivoted to add more face-to-face initiatives in subsequent pilots. In the fifth trial, they were able to derive the minimum set of in-person interactions needed to reach 40-50% participation rates in the community.

These results show what can happen when communications are responsive to the local environment and strategies are adapted accordingly. 

Awareness campaigns alone, the focus of many governments today, are not effective. They must be coupled with tailored interventions. 


Radical action

The global plastics crisis continues to advance at a rapid rate. An estimated 11 million tonnes of plastic waste enter our oceans each year. As the Ellen MacArthur Foundation notes, without radical action, there could be more plastic in our oceans than fish by 2050.

We need to reduce our reliance on virgin resources and ensure better end-of-life management of existing materials.

We can dramatically increase the effectiveness of behavior change initiatives and recover more valuable materials for a circular economy by taking a critical eye on the specific needs of a community, tailoring behavior change interventions, and measuring the results.

We are only scratching the surface of the potential impacts recycling can have. With a smarter approach, we can deliver sustainable and meaningful change. 

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Ellen Martin

Director, Impact & Insights, The Circulate Initiative

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