Making 'Cents' of Recycling Behavior
Updated: Apr 27
By Ella Flaye, Regional Director, Asia at Delterra and Ellen Martin, Impact and Insights, The Circulate Initiative
As the adage goes, habits are hard to break and behaviors hard to change. Today, due to the limited waste segregation at source, most post-consumer waste never reaches recycling end markets, accounting for a persistently low global recycling rate. The knock-on effect of this is a pervasive shortage of good-quality recycled feedstock, which presents a stubborn hindrance to the progress of scaling recycling meaningfully and advancing a circular economy.
The good news, however, is that boosting recycling behavior presents a major – and often missed – opportunity to improve the business case for recycling overall by improving the supply and yield and thus the recycling value chain’s economics. Investing in behavior change can pay for itself in recycling outcomes.
Making 'Cents' of Recycling Behavior
In our new research, conducted as a collaboration between Delterra and The Circulate Initiative (TCI), Making ‘Cents’ of Recycling Behavior: The Return on Investment of Spreading the Recycling Habit, we present learnings from Delterra’s implementation of community engagement initiatives in three of their on-ground recycling projects: an informal settlement in Buenos Aires, a set of urban districts in Bali and a mid-sized Argentinian city.
In each setting, Delterra introduced curbside-style recycling services to the residents for the first time, where Delterra’s staff worked with local government, waste workers and community members to promote consistent waste separation behavior at the source.
The results revealed interesting insights on the comparative benefits or ROI of recycling behavior interventions. We found:
Behavior change can pay back initial costs in as few as 2-4 years. Using the narrowest scope of benefits, such as the revenue from selling recyclables into local markets, we found the value of increased recycling still outweighed the community engagement costs. The payback on investment is projected to be around five years on average across all three projects. If we factored in landfill fees and credit for environmental benefits, this would be even quicker – between two to four years within political cycles and normal investment horizons. Key is creating monetary value for the benefits of recycled and composted materials as well as designing environmental policies that ensure purchase prices for both virgin and recycled materials capture their environmental impact.
Behavior change costs up to 80% less than technology-based alternatives for boosting recycling outcomes. We compared our costs for activating recycling behavior against two benchmarks, namely i) a technological alternative and ii) other types of behavior campaigns. The results show that promoting source separation recycling among consumers is more cost-effective than deploying machines or technology to help process the mixed waste, under the assumption that compostables are included. The numbers indicate for each US$50-150 spent in up-front investment, behavior change can deliver one ton of recovered material annually, compared to the $200-700 per ton required if waste-sorting technology was involved. When adjusted for purchasing power in Argentina and Indonesia, the cost per household of behavior change was in line with similar efforts in the U.S.
Deeper investment in community engagement is likely to yield higher recycling rates. About 70% of households in the Indonesia project adopted new recycling habits, compared to 20-35% in Argentina. This correlated with the amount invested in community engagement, which was equivalent to US$12 per household in the former, compared to US$2-6 in the latter. The optimal level of investment for specific campaign elements is currently being tested to better understand whether greater versus more targeted investment is more likely to yield higher engagement rates and increased recycling yields. For governments and corporations to deliver on their recycling commitments, high participation rates at scale are necessary, making it well worth the pursuit to educate and engage broad populations.
The results are wildly in favor of behavioral intervention. Higher rates of material recovery are directly correlated to higher investments in community engagement. Not only does the environmental value created by manual waste sorting pay for itself within a few years, but it also outperforms the value created by machines and technological alternatives further down the value chain alone.
Our analysis presents a compelling case for taking a more holistic approach to investing in waste management and recycling. Decision-makers must view recycling behavior as a core component of recycling infrastructure in order to increase recycling rates exponentially and ensure financial sustainability for recycling operators, both of which are integral to advancing the circular economy.
In the coming months, we plan to publish practical lessons we are learning in the field about effective community engagement and we’ll invite other organizations to share their behavior change insights as well. This collaborative factbase of recycling behavior can reshape what’s possible for the circular economy.
Delterra and The Circulate Initiative would like to thank the Alliance to End Plastic Waste, for its support to our respective organizations and for the role it plays in the ecosystem of actors that support behavior change interventions.