Saturday, May 8, 2010

Planetary Enemy Number 1: A Critique Of The Recycling Practices Of Boston, Massachusetts- Dorothy Marshall


The concept of recycling is not a novel idea. People have been recycling for thousands and thousands of years. Recycling is simply reusing an item for a new purpose (5). Many people are unaware of how often they recycle on a daily basis. However, recycling has a greater impact when considered on the consumer scale (5). One of the main reasons to recycle is to reduce the amount of trash sent to landfills (5). Space is limited, so recycling creates a better use of the limited space for trash disposal. Additionally, recycling prevents the need to deplete limited resources by reusing ready-made products. This makes the creation of new products from recycled materials cost-efficient and energy conserving (5). Recycling also decreases the amount of greenhouse gases emitted into the atmosphere by avoiding incineration process. However, in spite of these benefits, Americans on average recycle 32% of solid waste. Even more shocking, Boston lags far behind the national average and recycles 15% of solid waste (8). Why do Bostonians fail to recycle? What are the barriers that prevent Bostonians from recycling? This paper takes a critical look at recycling programs and policies in Boston in an attempt to understand the disconnect between the public perception of the need to recycle and the public health problem of inappropriate waste disposal.

Critique 1: Amount/type of messages

Recycling in Boston began in 1987 with volunteers organizing newspaper and bottle drop- offs in several neighborhoods (2). Since then, there has been a lack of a coherent, cohesive, united effort from the city. “Environmentalists say that education isn’t enough” (8), but Boston provides little or no education to its residents about recycling. Residents are required to work to hard to receive any information about recycling. Not only must the resident go to the city’s website and find the link to request information about recycling, the information provided does not explain why recycling is important. Many environmentalists fallaciously believe that the message of recycling as a means to save the Earth is a relevant reason for the general population to engage in this activity and is common knowledge.
The Elaboration Likelihood Model postulated by Petty and Capuano in 1986 explains why this is an erroneous mindset (7). This theory states that people process information via a central processing route or a peripheral processing route. If a person is directly involved or has a personal attachment to an issue, they will use the central processing route when evaluating the message. They will be attentive to what is said analyze the information. On the other hand, when a person is not directly involved with the issue, they will use the peripheral route. They will evaluate the message and make a decision based on things such as: the attractiveness of the messenger, the attractiveness of the message, and the frequency of the message (7).
I argue that for the majority of Boston residents, recycling is not along the central process because none of the benefits of recycling that are touted by environmentalists directly affect the individual. The highlighted benefits are all for the greater good of mankind and the planet, which appeals to an altruistic individual. Lacking the direct, personal involvement in the issue, most Bostonians will look at the frequency and attractiveness of the recycling messages when making a conscious choice to recycle or not. The policies and advertisements for recycling do not account for the fact that many residents are not using the central processing route when making a choice. The media and policies are designed to reach those with personal, direct personal involvement in the act of recycling. People have to actively seek out newsletter and pamphlets in order to get information and residents have to call for recycling bins. For the vast majority of people, recycling is not a priority in their lives, so they are not listening to or processing any of the content in these messages. Additionally, recycling messages aimed at increasing awareness about the importance of and participation in recycling are few and far between. This is why “communities have spent a fortune on outreach, but the message hasn’t gotten through” (8). It may seem like recycling education is falling on deaf ears. It is.

Critique 2: Inappropriate framing

Although the concept of recycling has been around for thousands of years, the modern concept of recycling was born in the United States with the US Clean Air Act of 1970 (5). During this time, there became an awareness of the long-lasting effects of industrialization, the use of landfills, and the emission of greenhouse gases. In an attempt to stave off the effects of global warming and in order to be more efficient with the use of our limited natural resources, the modern age of recycling was born.
However, during this time, there were many critics of the concept of global warming and the need for recycling. Some people felt that global warming was nothing more than cyclical patterns in the climate known to happen on the Earth over the course of human history. These critics cited the fact that the climate change was not drastic. This leads to another fallacy of the environmental movements. To most people, global warming, the need to recycle, or to lessen the burden on landfills by using sustainable items was unnecessary. In the majority of attempts, to educate the public, environmentalists cite the need to recycle in order to decrease greenhouse gas emissions, save the ozone layer, and save endangered species and habitats. All of things are imaginary and mythical to the average American citizen. Most people do not see these issues. Since there is no tangible problem, there is no impetus to change the status quo. This is why recycling rates in Boston are abysmal. When people walk outside, they see a blue sky. When they turn on the faucet, they see clear water. When they put trash on the curb, it is taken away.
The framing of for the reasons to recycle is inappropriate (10). The habitats and animals that are currently most effected by climate change far from Boston (e.g. polar bears). Most people will never experience any of the issues (melted polar ice caps) that are supposed to be a motivator for behavior change. As a result, there is a large apathetic population that is resistant to change.
Additionally, landfills are located far from urban centers, so the majority of the population is unaware of where the trash goes. There is a disconnect between the idea that trash is not removed; only transported. People do not see the fact that space is limited because environmental engineers go to great length to maximize the space in landfills. However, this efficiency lulls the population into a false sense of comfort about trash disposal.
The goal of recycling as it is currently framed is to fix a problem that in the majority of people’s mind does not exist. It is hard to have a desire to or sustain changed behavior when you do not see the problem or the benefits of the changed behavior. Recycling is framed is such a manner that people do not see it as a necessity. It is something so distant with effect so far off that there is no need to worry about it in the present. As long as there is air to breathe, water to drink, and clean streets, there is no need to get involved. People also do not see or know the effect of generating large amounts of trash. Using future planetary consequences as an incentive and a frame for recycling in the present is an ineffectual approach.

Critique 3: Lack of Follow Through and Reinforcement

Proper waste management is important and is often cited as one of the most important contributions to ameliorating disease. The Age of Sanitation is considered to have begun in 1842 when British reports linked disease to filthy environmental conditions (6). The modern age of recycling began in the United States in the 1970s and in Boston, 1987. The first Boston citywide recycling effort began in 1993 with the weekly collection of newspapers (2). So for all intents and purposes, Boston wide recycling is 17 years old, where disposing of all trash to landfills is 168 years old.
Environmentalists fail to realize that for the majority of the population, recycling trash is a whole new process. A huge fallacy in recycling campaigns is that they fail to acknowledge that recycling is a two-step change process. The Social Learning Theory postulated by Bandura shows that actions are learned by observation (1). People are conditioned and used to throwing all unwanted items in a trashcan. In order to be effective, advocates need to acknowledge the fact that recycling involves breaking one habit and seeing the utility of taking up a new one. Unfortunately, Boston’s patchwork approach to recycling makes it impossible for recycling to become a habit. It makes it impossible for children and adults to observe and learn this behavior because recycling in Boston is not unified.
In an attempt to increase recycling in Boston and promoting the building of a new habit, the Waste Ban of 2000 was passed. This regulation prohibits the disposal of certain recyclable material in the trash (11). However, this regulation cannot be enforced. Recycling is not obligatory in Boston. Businesses and large apartment complexes can choose to enter into private recycling contracts (4). Curbside recycling is provided for some residents of homes, but recycling pick-ups are not consistent. “Many communities do not provide recycling at larger apartment complexes, and others pick up only every other week. Some do not offer curbside recycling at all, forcing trips to transfer stations” (8). So even for those that want to recycle, there is no consistency in the city. In order to pick up a new habit, according to the Social Learning Theory, it has to be consistent and people need to observe others participating (1). When residents see others throwing away aluminum cans, others will follow suit, especially if there is no other option readily accessible. This is why recycling rates in Boson peak and decline.
The most prominent issue with this is the STRIVE campaign. This campaign introduced recycling to all Boston Public Schools, but its efforts are negated because of the city’s recycling inconsistencies (2). For example, when a child goes home to a large apartment complex with no recycling option he cannot continue the recycling behavior he learned at school. The child will also see their parents throwing recyclables away, so the child will model what they see and not have the option to do the learn behavior from school. In order for any effort to be successful, consistency is vital.
As shown, recycling in Boston is riddled with problems. The Elaboration-Likelihood Model has shown that the persuasive messages are aimed at the wrong audience and that there are simply no enough of them. Framing has shown that the messages and benefits derived from recycling are not strong enough to persuade someone in understanding the need for recycling. Finally, the Social Learning Theory showed that recycling is a learned behavior that needs to be consistently modeled and observed in order to become a new habit, but the inconsistencies throughout the city thwart those efforts. Boston asks its residents to call for a recycling bin for a problem they can’t see, for a solution that’s yet future, to start a habit they cannot continue throughout the city.

Intervention: Aspects of the Matter Matters campaign

The “Matter Matters” campaign is an intervention that aims to address these three issues of inappropriate messages, poor framing, and lack of consistency. In this campaign, the messages will be tailored to the majority of Boston residents- an audience that has no personal involvement in recycling, is concerned with immediate benefits, and uses the most convenient option when disposing of trash. The three tenants of this intervention are based on the theory of framing, social norms/social learning theory, and operant conditioning theory.

Section 1: Framing

Because of the efficiency of our landfills and sanitation, trash is not something people actively think about. In this sense, the efficiency of trash disposal is hindering the progress of recycling. As stated before, the benefits and consequences of not recycling are intangible. When people put their trash on the curb it goes away. When people walk outside, they see green grass and a blue sky. When environmentalists speak of problems, they are often in the distant future. The benefits of recycling are usually framed as “it’s good for the Earth” or “it’s good for the environment”, but how is recycling good for the individual?
One way to reframe recycling so that the individual will see the direct benefits is to attach the monetary value ascribed to recycling. “When you’re paying $89.50 a ton for trash removal, recycling translated into big savings” (8). Instead of focusing on how much good recycling does for the environment and for posterity, create messages that focus on the fact that recycling saves money. Many of the messages do not highlight the fact that recycling common materials like paper, aluminum, and plastic are cost efficient. Many commercials show how using energy efficient light bulbs and energy star appliances can save money over the course of time and recycling these materials can do the same things. This addresses the personal involvement and immediate benefit to recycling.
At one point in time, recycling center would pay for cans and newspapers. This is a direct personal benefit that environmentalists can use to reframe recycling. Taking this frame a step further would involve tax breaks or incentives for those that recycle. By recycling you can save money the government money and receive tax breaks. If municipal governments are able to save money by paying less for trash removal, this could translate into large savings for the city. For example, there can be a slogan like “recycling is the answer to your tax hike”. At a city level, recycling should be reframed to emphasize it as a way for people to derive direct monetary benefits. Just like the Federal government used monetary incentives as a way to drive the market toward using fuel-efficient or hybrid cars, Boston’s city government can use the same method as a means to increase participation. We need to continue to reframe recycling until it becomes common practice.

Section 2: Social norms/ SLT/Mass Media

We can make recycling common by changing social norms by using the social learning theory through mass media. Once people begin to see the direct monetary benefit of recycling, more people will use the central processing route to make a decision whether or not to recycle (7). However, if there is spotty recycling throughout the city, the rates will not increase.
In the Matter Matters campaign, I would partner with the Boston sports teams in order to create a social norm of recycling (1). Bostonians are huge sports fans and just like beer is associated with sports, recycling can become associated with beer. If recycling efforts were pushed and advertised during sporting events, it would translate into daily practices. The attendees would see their peers recycling cans, bottles, etc. on a large scale (1). For example, the Matter Matters campaign would show commercials between innings at Red Sox games of how much money Boston Red Sox fans have saved by recycling their beverage containers. The Red Sox could have a “Recycle Night” with giveaways of Red Sox products made by recycled materials purchased by the money saved as a result of fan participation in recycling. This is a way of showing how the benefits of recycling are not only important and simple, but they directly and immediately translate back to the individual. This would create awareness of recycling cans and bottles, show how it is of personal relevance, and allow others to see recycling behavior modeled. This addresses the notion that the benefits of recycling are yet future.
With this aspect of the intervention, the population gets free, recycled Red Sox paraphernalia right away. The campaign could also be based on participation. The more that the fans recycle; the more the Red Sox can giveaway. This can be replicated for other Boston sports teams in other arenas as well. This will create a positive association between fun, recycling, and free gifts. It is also on a large scale, so many people will be able to receive the same mass media messages. There is also the added benefit of watching others participate and if Matter Matters could get players to participate that will help with the attractiveness of the message (1, 7).

Section 3: Operant Conditioning

Finally, to increase the perceived benefit of recycling, the Matter Matters campaign will employ the operant conditioning theory to negatively reinforce throwing things away in the trashcan. The theory of operant conditioning, postulated by Skinner, states that a behavior will increase if it is followed by positive reinforcement. A behavior will decrease if it is followed by negative reinforcement (9). This, unlike classical conditioning, is used for learned behavior. As mentioned before, the act of recycling for the vast majority of Americans is a learned behavior. The pay-as-you-throw campaign, modeled off of this theory, has shown to be an effective motivator for recycling. This program “gives residents a cash incentive to cull cans and cardboard from the trash and put them in recycling bins which are emptied for free” (8).
Not only will people know about the direct monetary benefits of recycling, but also they will be charged to use the trashcan. This will create the need for those people who never thought about the importance of recycling to reevaluate. The thought process shifts from, “it’s easier to throw everything in the trash because there’s a trash can readily available and it’s what I always do” to “is this recyclable? I want to avoid paying for trash pickup this week.” In order to avoid the negative consequence of paying of trash disposal, a resident can receive the benefit of having recycling removed for free. This will create a huge push for people to be more responsible consumers. This will deal with the issue of recycling as a means to compensate for overuse that some environmentalists are concerned about. “it’s crucial that people not only recycle more, but produce less trash to begin with” (8).
The juxtaposition of strongly promoting and providing incentives for recycling and disparaging trash disposal will create an awakening among Boston residents. To many people, recycling is not an issue. There are much bigger issues in daily life. The “Matter Matters” campaign takes all of the thinking and decision making process out of recycling.


The failure to recycle and use limited resources prudently will have long-lasting and far-reaching consequences. However, these consequences will not be visible to the general population for quite some time. It is important that public health practitioners never let those effects become visible to the lay audience. It is important that we address the failure to recycle now before recycling no longer has an effect on the environment.
As states, there are several issues with the approach that the City of Boston takes to recycling, which is evidenced by the fact that Boston recycles less than half of the average American citizen. The messages that are used are tailored for the wrong audience, they are inappropriately framed, and the city is inconsistent with its policies and enforcement of recycling practices. The Matter Matters campaign aimed to address these issues by looking at the problems with Boston’s approach to recycling and applying the theories of framing, social norms, and operant conditioning.
In taking a novel approach and acknowledging the fact that people need strong, consistent, tangible, and direct incentives to recycle, the Matter Matters campaign creates a whole new way for Bostonians to view and get involved with recycling. This campaign aims to create sustained change in the residents of Boston and beyond.


1. Bandura, A. Social Learning Theory. New York: General Learning Press, 1971.

2. City of History of Recycling in Boston. Boston, MA: Official Website of the City of Boston.

3. City of Boston Recycling Information 2005. Boston, MA: Official Website of the City of Boston

4. City of Recycling in Large Buildings. Boston, MA: Official Website of the City of Boston.

5. Grabianowski, Ed. How Recycling Works.

6. Metzger, Thomas. Waste Watchmen. Waste Age.

7. Petty, R. E. and Cacioppo, J. T. Communication and persuasion: Central and peripheral routes to attitude change, New York: Springer-Verlag, 1986.

8. Schworm, Peter. Recycling efforts fail to change old habits: Apathy, confusion cited as obstacles.

9. Skinner, B. F. Two types of conditioned reflex and a pseudo type. Journal of General Psychology 1935;12, 66-77.

10. Watzlawick, P., Weakland, J. and Fisch, R. Change: Principles of problem formation and problem resolution, New York: Norton, 1971.

Labels: , , , ,


Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

<< Home