Social norms: the next step in improving recycling behaviours

Sarah Clayton, Head of Citizen Behaviour Change

In the quest to improve recycling and beat the UK’s current plateau WRAP’s Recycle Now campaign team has explored new approaches and ideas for recycling communications. What we found has implications for how recycling should be communicated all over the UK.

We started by examining the things that really drive individual in-home recycling behaviours. Drawing on insights from academic studies as well as existing WRAP research and experience we have focused on four factors that influence individual in-home recycling rates:

1) How difficult or easy recycling is compared to other ways of getting rid of waste

2) Personal attitudes and motivation towards recycling

3) Knowing what, when, and how to recycle

4) Feeling expected to recycle by those around you

There is work we can do on all those factors, but we can’t really address the relative ease or difficulty of recycling through communication. Communications can only impact the other three factors.

We found that once set, personal attitudes don’t tend to change so even when someone realises recycling is a ‘good’ thing, giving them more information about the benefits is generally not one of the strongest levers for behaviour change. We still need to tell people why recycling is worthwhile, but this second factor shouldn’t be the sole focus for our strategy if we want to improve recycling behaviours.

Clearly, people can’t recycle without knowing how to, and that has always been a big part of WRAP’s Recycle Now communication as well as the communication activity we recommend to local authorities. This must continue.

The fourth factor, feeling expected to recycle by those around you, is one communications can address but generally doesn’t today. This opens new possibilities for recycling communications.

Psychologists and behavioural economists have shown us we are not the rational decision makers we would like to believe. There are lots of internal and external elements that influence our decisions in ways we are not aware of. Social norms are one of these elements.

They are informal understandings that shape the behaviour of members of a group or society. Put simply social norms are subconscious ‘rules’ that shape our behaviour. We can ignore them and ‘break’ the rules, but generally we don’t.

We all get quieter when entering a library, it’s a social norm. Similarly, when you meet someone for the first time and they hold their hand out, you probably shake it.

Norms exist around recycling behaviour as well. The right messages in communications can influence perceptions of these norms and provide a psychological nudge to recycle more. It can be as simple as implying a person’s neighbours are recycling a lot; subconsciously this will make them feel they are expected to recycle by those around them.

The positive effect of normative messaging on citizen behaviour has been shown in numerous trials and experiments, as well as for other environmentally friendly behaviours like energy saving and eating less meat.

We must be careful not to mislead people, and the normative messaging must be applied carefully to achieve the desired outcomes. There is a lot of evidence for how this should be done, and we have carried out our own testing around England and Wales to support it.

Social norming approaches to changing behaviour for the better have been successfully applied in a lot of areas but have never really been used at scale for recycling. Until now.

We have developed a toolkit which makes adding normative messaging to recycling communications quick and easy. We have launched it for all partners – from local authorities to retailers and brands – to use from World Environment Day on 5 June. Everything in it has been extensively tested and checked so all partners’ recycling communication can include a normative message.

We have achieved great progress on recycling in the past but to break from the current plateau everyone involved will need to embrace new techniques and tools.

The new approach we are proposing is not a silver bullet that will change recycling behaviours overnight, but it is a powerful tool we can, and should be using to improve recycling in the UK.

Download the new Recycle Now campaign toolkit from the Resource Library.