An examination of household waste behavior: What drives us to do what we do, and has COVID affected our attitudes towards waste?

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Written by  Calvin Lakhan, Ph.D, Co-Investigator: “The Waste Wiki” – Faculty of Environmental Studies at York University

Over the past 8 months, the university has been conducting a series of studies examining household waste management behavior in Ontario. This includes:

  1. An examination of household attitudes and self-reported behaviors regarding illegal dumping
  2. An examination of whether household waste management behaviors have changed over the past decade
  3. Identifying the primary antecedents and obstacles to desired household waste management behavior, including measures of attitudes, awareness, normative/social influences and perceived behavioral control.
  4. Evaluating the efficacy of promotion and education initiatives on diversion behavior across multiple mediums
  5. Examining how, (if at all) COVID has affected waste disposal/diversion habits among households

In many ways, this can be seen as the conceptual follow up to the series of studies I conducted in between 2014 and 2018, with the goal of better understanding how household attitudes and behaviors towards waste have changed over time. The emergence of the COVID pandemic last year has added an additional dimension to this research, as the way we work, interact, consume and behave has changed radically – including for waste.

While each of these studies will be released as formal papers over the next 6 months, I thought I would provide a “sneak peek” into some of the results. This includes both a high level summary of the impacts of COVID on waste behavior, as well as more general results that provide insights into the aforementioned study topics.

Has COVID affected our attitudes towards waste?

COVID has resulted in several undesirable outcomes with respect to household waste behavior, largely as a result of the considerable increase in the consumption and disposal of packaging. This stems from the significant rise in e-commerce purchases, prepackaged foodstuff and food takeout as a result of pandemic restrictions.

Attitudes towards plastic packaging and plastic products have also improved considerably when compared to even as little as two years ago. Households recognize the role that plastics play with respect to PPE, and food safety. Survey results showed that support for a single use plastics ban among households was less than 35% – a precipitous drop when compared to prior year results. Attitudes towards plastics in general have also become more favorable among households, but to a lesser degree relative to single use plastics.  While it is unclear as to whether this change in attitudes will persist as the pandemic abates over time, it does demonstrate that the narrative surrounding plastics is no longer binary (good vs. bad).

What is perhaps of greater interest is that COVID has not only affected consumption habits, but  a household’s desire to better understand what is happening to their waste, and the resulting impacts.

More than 66% of survey respondents disagreed, or strongly disagreed with the statement “I know what happens to my waste once I dispose of it” (Note: this question was asked for both waste in general, as well as specific waste streams, i.e. packaging, organics, MSHW, textiles etc. – for brevity, only general waste results are discussed.

This finding in and of itself is not surprising, historically, households have reported poor levels of awareness regarding what happens to waste after disposal. What has changed significantly is that more than 61% of respondents agreed, or strongly agreed with the statement “I care about what happens to my waste once I dispose of it”. By comparison, only 21% of respondents from our 2016 study reported caring about what happens to their waste.

The Social Impacts of Waste – Diverting with a purpose

Historically, waste management has been seen through the lens of environmental impacts, i.e. reduced landfill utilization, increased recycling, less litter etc. However, households are increasingly wanting to know about the social impacts of waste disposal/diversion. What’s particularly interesting is that the economic uncertainty resulting from the pandemic has placed greater emphasis on households wanting to divert with a socially beneficial purpose. Using textile waste as an example, Figures 1 and 2 summarize results from one of the studies:

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The results above show that not only has COVID encouraged households to divert more textile materials, but that households specifically wanted their donations to make a difference. During the open ended component of the survey, respondents indicated that they wanted their donation to help other families and/or charities during a time of economic uncertainty. While these results echo the findings from previous studies that have examined household textile diversion behavior, COVID has considerably increased altruistic intentions and the desire to “make a difference” among households.

While textiles (and furniture) more readily lend themselves to an examination of the social impacts of waste, households in general are wanting to ensure that waste is being managed in an environmentally and socially responsible way. During the open ended section of the surveys, more than 30% of respondents indicated that they were concerned about Canada “exporting waste to other countries” (i.e. Canada Philippines waste disputes), and that Canada is “dumping waste in poor countries”.

Lack of trust between households, municipalities and producers

A particularly interesting result from the surveys is that more than 41% percent of respondents expressed doubt that waste was actually being diverted (recycled/composted/reused etc.). There was a distinct lack of trust on the part of respondents, who did not believe that the municipality (or service provider) was telling the truth with respect to what they say is happening to their waste. While the survey examined specific waste streams, commonly occurring concerns that were coded during the open ended questions include:  “We aren’t really recycling” “It all goes to the landfill” “It is getting shipped off to the 3rd world”.

While it is difficult to specifically isolate what is driving these concerns and the general lack of trust, it appears that incidents that are highly visible and garner a lot of media attention, i.e. “60 shipping containers of household waste rejected and sent back to Canada”, “National news story on exporting textile waste to developing economies” generate considerable uncertainty and skepticism among the public. These incidents often become the focal point for public ire and undermine trust between waste service providers and the public. Further compounding the problem is that how waste is managed and by whom varies radically across jurisdictions, making it difficult to address/dispute by any one waste service provider (municipal or private).

A lack of trust was also exhibited with respect to recycling/diversion claims made by companies. 54% of respondents disagreed, or strongly disagreed with the statement “I believe the manufacturer when a product is listed as recyclable” (note: the wording of this question originally included divertable in lieu of recyclable. However, a significant percentage of respondents were unclear as to what was meant by divertable. For our purposes, we use the term recyclable as a proxy for diversion).

Once again, news/reports that question or find fraudulent environmental claims made by manufacturers resulted in increased doubt/skepticism among households – in many ways, we have a situation of “One bad apple spoils the bunch”. When one manufacturer is caught making dubious claims, other manufacturers are punished for it in the court of public opinion. Households seemingly have difficulty differentiating between different types of products in a certain category, i.e. plastic vs. aluminum and compostable coffee pods. As an example, when Keurig was sued for making false recyclability claims, all coffee pods (regardless of type) were stigmatized and assumed to end up in the trash.

Issues in Terminology and how we communicate success

As alluded to in the previous section, respondents have difficulty understanding sector specific terminology, i.e. “divertable” etc. Less than one quarter of respondents agreed (or strongly agreed) with the statement “I know what a circular economy is”. Similar results were also observed when respondents were asked about the terms “Zero Waste – 32%” “Carbon Neutral – 11%” “Life cycle impacts – 15%”, “Green House Gases – 31%”, “Carbon Footprint – 24%” “Producer Responsibility – 17%”and “Diversion – 38%”. This finding highlights that the way we communicate with the public regarding waste, including how we choose to define and communicate success, needs to be re-evaluated. A theme that emerged during the open ended component of the surveys was that people lack context with respect to what certain metrics mean, i.e. “Is recycling 40% of waste good or bad?”, “Is a carbon reduction of 1000 T/CO2e good or bad?” “Does zero waste really mean that we won’t throw anything away?” etc.

Of note, these studies echoed the findings from our earlier work, which found that the public doesn’t fully understand or appreciate the environmental impacts of waste management outcomes that are not recycling. Reuse/refurbish, waste reduction, waste minimization, composting and incineration were waste management strategies that were not associated with desirable environmental outcomes. In short, households understand and appreciate the role that recycling can play in promoting sustainability, but the same cannot be said of other strategies on the waste management hierarchy. Respondents did recognize that certain materials/products must be safely managed and kept out of the environment as a harm reduction strategy (health and contamination hazards from household hazardous waste). However, respondents did not  consider harm reduction as a component of promoting environmental sustainability.

Convenience and accessibility is what matters most    

While the obstacles to desired waste management behavior (recycling, composting etc.) include a range of factors such as a lack of knowledge and awareness, negative attitudes, inconsistent service and enforcement etc., the primary obstacle remains a lack of convenience and accessibility.

Generally speaking, respondents expressed very positive attitudes towards the environment and a strong desire to “do the right thing” with respect to waste. However, respondents, particularly those living in multi-residential homes and in rural communities, indicated that they often faced barriers to access, which ultimately impeded their ability to participate.

This finding has been observed in numerous other studies, but the most important learning from our recent work is that a lack of perceived behavioral control (the ability to actually carry out a desired behavior) will largely negate any efforts to increase awareness, cultivate favorable attitudes, or normative pressures from the community/municipality. In fact, when measures of attitudes and awareness are high, but perceived behavioral control is low, it results in something called cognitive dissonance. In the simplest terms, cognitive dissonance (as it pertains to waste) refers to negative attitudes that arise from wanting to do the right thing, understanding the importance of performing the action, but being unable to do so because of an infrastructural or accessibility barrier. If cognitive dissonance persists over time, there is a risk of people becoming resentful of the desired behavior, as formerly positive attitudes now become negative.

Lack of convenience and accessibility are also seen as a manifestation of socio-economic inequality – in the broader literature, there is an extremely strong correlation between income levels and access to environmental amenities and infrastructure. While examining this topic is beyond the scope of this post, we need to ask ourselves the question “Is access to adequate waste management infrastructure and municipal diversion programs a right, or a privilege?”

Who should be responsible for educating households about what to do with waste?

Our most recent research confirmed an earlier observation from work we had done in 2018, in that households have very different expectations about who should be responsible for education and awareness with respect to waste. Intuitively, I would have guessed that households look to the municipality to provide guidance regarding what to do with waste at its end of life (as is the case in most cities across Ontario). However, when respondents were asked to identify who should be responsible for educating consumers about waste management outcomes, more than 42% said retail outlets, or at the point of purchase. This compares to 29% for municipalities, 21% for producer/manufacturers and 8% for the consumer themselves.

During the open ended section of the survey, respondents indicated that it would be easier to make an environmentally informed purchase if that information was provided at the retail level. Respondents also said that it would allow for comparison shopping among similar products, allowing them to choose items that they know can be recycled or safely managed at end of life. It is important to note that while consumers often list “recyclability” as influencing purchasing decisions, this historically has not been the case during actual observational research. Price, quality, brand loyalty etc. all play a greater role in influencing purchasing decisions when compared to the recyclability/divertability of a product (a phenomenon that is explained by the value action gap).

However, this finding about the role of the retailer in communicating what happens to a product at its end of life opens up a potentially new medium for engaging with consumers and increasing awareness, directly at the point of purchase. In fact, based on comments that were made during the open ended component of the survey, respondents would like to see additional environmental metrics communicated at the retail level. This finding is actually not as surprising as one would initially think, as there has been a marked increase in environmentally conscionable consumers who want their purchasing decisions to reflect their personal values.

Promotion and Education does not work….sort of

While I am being a tad disingenuous with the header, our most recent research reinforces our earlier findings that conventional methods and mediums of promotion and education are no longer effective. There are a number of caveats to that statement, the most important of which is that the efficacy of P&E is very much contingent on the maturity of the recycling system. All of our research was conducted in Ontario, which is seen as having a mature waste management system (characterized by high levels of accessibility and infrastructure, diversion programs for multiple waste streams, and high rates of household participation).

To make a very long story short, appeals to environmental altruism (i.e. recycling is good for the environment, helps conserve resources, helps combat climate change etc.) have already been received by the vast majority of households. Participation rates in recycling and other diversion programs among single family households is in excess of 90% – in short, the target audience for conventional P&E campaigns rooted in environmental altruism and conscionability are already doing what we want them to do, and they have been doing it for years.

Where things become more complicated is that the demography of Ontario is rapidly changing – Ethnic first generation Ontarians born outside of the country make up an increasingly larger share of overall households, particularly in the multi-residential sector. The issue with respect to increasing diversion is that many of these households do not speak English as their primary language and come from countries which lack mature waste management infrastructure and formal recycling/diversion programs. Many of these households also do not readily associate recycling/diversion with positive environmental outcomes, and do not understand or respond to promotion and education initiatives asking them to recycle. Further complicating matters is that these households are not behaviorally homogeneous, as the drivers of desired waste management behavior varies significantly across ethnic groups (South Asian households will recycle for very different reasons than African households etc.). There simply is no one size fits all approach to P&E that will be effective.

My previous study “The Garbage Gospel” explored methods and mediums to engage with different cultural groups to increase levels of awareness and recycling participation (https://naaee.org/eepro/research/library/garbage-gospel-using-theory-planned?term_node_tid_depth_join_1%5B0%5D=2428) However, our most recent work wanted to better understand how to make desired behavior habitual (where in the desired behavior is performed in the absence of any direct intervention).

While our study will discuss this topic in greater length, habituation will be difficult to achieve unless there are significant changes made to ensure equitable access to waste management services and programs. As noted above, there is a strong correlation between community income levels and access to waste management infrastructure. On average, new Ontarians who immigrate to the province make up a significant share of these communities (in multi-res). Not only do these households have lower levels of access and face greater barriers to participation, but habituation is reinforced by performing a behavior consistently, and observing those in your community also participate consistently. Multi-residential buildings in particular lack the normative influences of being seen (and observing others) participating in a desired behavior. Residents can go to the waste room (or use a waste chute) at their convenience, and there is no way of knowing whether people are actually recycling/composting or not.

Our study also found that levels of skepticism and distrust surrounding what happens to waste was more than double among first generation ethnic minorities when compared to respondents who were born in Canada. Almost 65% of respondents who were classified as a first generation ethnic minority expressed doubt regarding whether waste is actually being recycled/diverted. Additional work needs to be done in this area to better understand whether this result was an anomaly, or part of a larger pattern of distrust among immigrants living in Ontario.

Conclusion

The above are very high level summaries of some of the salient findings from our most recent survey work that I thought would be interesting to share. The university was uniquely positioned to include a temporal dimension to our analysis, as many of these studies were conducted in prior years and within the same communities.

While the intent of this survey work is to ultimately produce published academic articles, I will make a concerted effort to share the overall results with the LinkedIn community. My goal is to write one post per week that goes into greater detail surrounding a study’s methodology and findings and I welcome feedback/questions/critiques etc.

PS: I’m also attaching the raw data from our illegal dumping survey results, to give you a better sense of how we organized questions and results.

Illegal Dumping Survey Raw

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About the Author

Calvin LAKHAN, Ph.D, is currently co-investigator of the “Waste Wiki” project at York University (with Dr. Mark Winfield), a research project devoted to advancing understanding of waste management research and policy in Canada. He holds a Ph.D from the University of Waterloo/Wilfrid Laurier University joint Geography program, and degrees in economics (BA) and environmental economics (MEs) from York University. His research interests and expertise center around evaluating the efficacy of municipal recycling initiatives and identifying determinants of consumer recycling behavior.

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