Study examines how better communication can boost recycling


The research comes after China’s national sword policy set strict contamination limits and restrictions on recyclable materials, throwing the U.S. recycling market into disarray

BUFFALO, NY — A study led by the University at Buffalo examines how better communication can support efforts to increase recycling in New York State and the rest of the United States.

The study, “Predicting Recycling Intent in New York State: The Impact of Cognitive and Social Factorswas published in March in the journal Environmental Development.

This comes after China’s 2018 National Sword Policy essentially stopped the flow of some waste destined for recycling from the United States and other developed countries to China.

The restrictions resulted in part from the fact that recyclable materials were contaminated with unacceptable levels of non-recyclable materials. As a result, recycling markets and programs were disrupted in the United States, especially in communities where much of the recyclable material was exported to China.

To help remedy this situation, researchers want to better understand New York State residents’ knowledge of recycling and improve communication about recycling.

The study focuses on the Theory of Planned Behavior (TPB), which predicts a person’s intention to act on three factors: the extent to which a behavior is seen as supportive; perceived social pressure to engage in the behavior; and the perceived difficulty of the behavior.

The study, which analyzes survey data collected from 1,010 residents across New York State, found that:

  • Concern for the environment, subjective knowledge (in this case, what they think they know about recycling), and social capital (network and relationships that can be used to gain advantage) are key factors in the likelihood that a person recycles.
  • Subjective knowledge – rather than objective knowledge (what an individual actually knows) – influences whether someone intends to recycle.
  • Social capital indirectly affects recycling intention through attitude and subjective norms.

“We find that people with more pro-environmental attitudes, those who believe they know more about recycling, as well as people who are more connected in their communities tend to want to recycle better because they have a more favorable attitude. towards recycling and see recycling as a socially desirable thing to do,” says study co-author Janet Yang, PhD, a professor in the Department of Communication at UB.

She adds: “This work highlights the importance of establishing an environmentally friendly culture within local communities, and that environmental campaigns and education must be rooted at the community level.”

The study was led by Zhuling Liu, a doctoral candidate in Yang’s lab. Other authors include Amy Bloomfield of the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation; Susan Clark, PhD, assistant professor in UB’s Department of Environment and Sustainability; and Michael Shelly, environmental/ecological economist at the UB RENEW Institute.

“Our results indicate that social capital, which is people’s sense of connection to their communities, can instill a positive attitude toward recycling, reinforce subjective norms and moral obligations, which in turn increase recycling intention.” , explains Liu.

The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation will use the study results to improve recycling education, encourage recycling, and make recycling requirements clearer for state residents. The study will also help inform statewide recycling education campaigns such as the Recycle Right NY Campaign, which is administered by the New York State Center for Sustainable Materials Management.

Among demographic variables, the study found that younger people, women, people from underrepresented groups, as well as those with lower levels of formal education, were more likely to indicate a stronger intention to do better. recycle in the future.

To assess direct and indirect relationships between variables, the authors performed both regression analysis and mediation tests. Because the survey data came from a representative sample of New York State residents, the findings may be generalizable to the entire New York State population and the nation, according to writers.

“This study expands the theory of planned behavior by incorporating additional cognitive and contextual factors into the study of recycling intention. The results show that environmental concerns, subjective knowledge, and social capital are important determinants of recycling intention,” says project leader Amit Goyal, SUNY Professor Emeritus and SUNY Empire Professor of Innovation in the Department of Engineering. chemical and biological UB.

The study is part of a multidisciplinary project led by Goyal and sponsored by the New York Environmental Protection Fund and the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation.

“Another part of this larger multidisciplinary project is about recycling plastics. This includes assessing the state of the plastics recycling market; contamination in recycling streams; evaluate sorting technologies; assess the potential costs and benefits of improving recycling infrastructure; and investigating different ways to reduce plastic use by finding more sustainable substitutes,” says Goyal.


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