Environmental Attitudes and Household Recycling Behaviour

January 2001


The environmental attitudes survey is a programme of research into public attitudes towards environmental issues and the psychological and social factors associated with different forms of environmentally relevant behaviour. The last phase of this research programme is specifically concerned with factors associated with household recycling behaviour, which is described in detail in this report. Preceding phases of work are summarised in the background section.

The main aims were to assess the psychometric properties and the utility of a questionnaire devised to investigate household recycling (see Appendix), and to consider the results in the light of current theories with a view to informing interventions. A total of 252 completed questionnaires were returned by 11 January 2001, an overall response rate of 66%. Participants were drawn from the central belt of Scotland, and the majority (84%) resided in an area with a Glasgow postcode. The sample consisted of 252 participants. Of these, 64% (160) were female, 36% (90) were male. Ages ranged from 16 years to 77 years, with a mean age of 36.13 years (SD = 14.72). Fourteen per cent (36) of participants indicated that they had some involvement with environmental organisations, mostly at a voluntary level.

Between 25% and 51% of participants had recycled at least some of their newspapers, glass, aluminium and plastic in the three months prior to data collection, with most participants using recycle banks. Rather more participants (54% to 76%) indicated some intention to recycle these waste items in the month following data collection. The most frequently endorsed reasons for recycling were ‘to conserve the earth’s resources’ (85% - 93%), ‘because it’s easy to do’ (67% - 79%), and ‘because it’s a habit’ (68% - 77%). Of the reasons for not recycling, the most frequently endorsed were as follows: ‘recycling facilities are not easily available’ (80% - 84%), ‘there are no local collections’ (70% - 73%), ‘I’m not in the habit of doing it’ (64% - 68%), and ‘it doesn’t occur to me to do this, or I forget’ (61% - 65%).

Principal components analysis of prompts and barriers produced two and four factors respectively. The prompt factors were characterised as follows: to make money/to make a good impression (external reasons and social pressures); and habit/to conserve the earth’s resources (habit/belief). The first two barrier factors were characterised as follows: ‘it doesn’t occur to me/I forget’ (I don’t think about it); and ‘there are no local collections or facilities’ (it isn’t easy to do). The other two barrier factors were more difficult to interpret, but the third appeared to reflect a feeling that recycling was not important to the participant. These factor scores were used in further analysis, but the weaknesses of the factor structures were acknowledged.

The attitudinal/social variables were also subjected to principal components analysis, and the results were more satisfactory. The first factor was characterised by positive feelings towards recycling, a sense of responsibility, a sense of social support for recycling, and a sense of self-identity. The second factor was characterised by having opportunities to recycle and finding it easy in the following month, and was thus a reflection of perceived behavioural control over recycling. The third factor reflected social pressure to recycle (but not a sense of control over this), while the fourth factor centred on recycling if there were penalties or if paid (but a sense of identity as someone who does not recycle). Scores on the New Environmental Paradigm (NEP) scale, designed to measure attitudes towards broader environmental issues, were generally positive and they were highly correlated with scores on the first attitudinal factor.

The analysis centred on the factors related to intentions to recycle and past recycling behaviour. The results indicated that both past recycling behaviour and intentions to recycle were related to age and occupation (with older people, and those not in occupational group III non-manual occupations being more likely to recycle). Past recycling and intentions were also related to positive feelings about recycling, to finding recycling easy to do (perceived behavioural control) and to involvement in environmental groups (with those recycling most or all of their waste expressing more positive feelings, indicating that they found it comparatively easy to do, and being more likely to have an involvement in environmental groups). Further, those recycling most or all of their household waste, and intending to do so in future, were more likely to indicate that they had recycled out of habit and to conserve the earth’s resources, and they were less likely to have failed to recycle because they forgot/couldn’t be bothered, or because there were no local collections or facilities.

The results of the discriminant function analyses indicated that when all other relevant variables were statistically controlled, those who had some intention to recycle were more likely to have recycled in the past, they were more likely to have recycled out of habit and to conserve the earth’s resources, and they were more likely to find recycling easy to do (perceived behavioural control). Those who had not recycled anything in the previous three months were less likely to have recycled out of habit or to conserve the earth’s resources. More informatively, with this and the demographic variables controlled for, they were more likely to have failed to recycle because they forgot or couldn’t be bothered, and they were less likely to feel that recycling was easy for them to achieve (perceived behavioural control).

A large number of participants (44%) provided written comments on their questionnaires. The majority of these comments focused specifically on factors which would improve their own and other people’s recycling behaviour, typically through the improvement of local recycling facilities and the provision of regular home collection services. Some participants commented on the need for education and the raising of awareness of recycling and other environmental issues, while others took a broader view of the problems (often economic) associated with environmental issues. A number of comments were related specifically to the structure of the questionnaire, although, interestingly, some participants mentioned that the questionnaire itself had reminded them of the importance of recycling.

Problems with the structure and format of the questionnaire were identified through comments and an examination of missing data and completion errors. The most problematic section of the questionnaire related to the reasons for recycling and the reasons for not recycling. Overall, older people made more errors in the completion of the questionnaire.

Many participants commented on the problems they had with finding recycling facilities, and it was clear that most had little or no access to kerbside or home collections. There is strong evidence to suggest from the current study that if the organisational structures were to be put into place, people in the West of Scotland would make good use of them. There was a high level of awareness of the possibilities for recycling, with a number of people specifically commenting on the ways in which household waste is recycled in the USA and certain European countries. In addition, many of our participants made it clear that they wanted to do more in the way of recycling.

Under the current circumstances, with a paucity of facilities, it was not surprising that attitudinal, social and educational issues were less important in determining actual behaviour. However, these factors did vary significantly across groups of recycling behaviours and intentions, and when recycling is relatively easy to do, attitudes and social factors are likely to play a more substantial role. The current literature (e.g. Terry et al., 1999b; van Knippenberg, 1999) suggests that social factors, in terms of identification with social groups, may play a crucial role in determining the acceptance of information and persuasive material, and in translating that acceptance into behaviour. This is consistent with the results of the current study, in which it was found that social support and self-identity differentiated between recycling groups (as part of the ‘positive feelings’ measure), whereas perceived social pressure (without identification) did not.

The current study suggests at least three strands of future research, in addition to redesigning the questionnaire. First, it would be useful to find out more about public perceptions of specific intervention strategies, especially those intended to make recycling behaviour easier to perform. Second, it would be informative and useful to follow a cohort of participants in an area receiving new recycling facilities, particularly if that were to involve home collection services. Third, intervention strategies based on current theories of social identity and attitude change/persuasion could be devised and tested with groups of people who are less likely to recycle at present (e.g. adolescents and young adults).

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