How to Convince Non-Recyclers to Ditch the Trash Bag

Taking steps toward a more environmentally friendly lifestyle can often be just as frustrating as it is exciting.

Exciting, of course, because it’s empowering to challenge yourself to reduce waste, conserve energy and consciously create a sustainable life. The frustration comes in when you realize that every positive change you make just seems to underscore the increasingly wasteful habits of the rest of the world not doing these things. And sometimes, “the rest of the world” can include your co-workers, your extended family or even your spouse.

After seeing how simple and beneficial it can be to shift to a greener lifestyle, the question inevitably arises: How can you go about convincing others to do the same?

Today we’re going to tackle this touchy issue — and we’re going to do it by starting slow. If you’re trying to convert eco-friendly skeptics, there’s no point in diving in with worm compost or family cloth (google that term if you’re not familiar … it’s really something).

We’ll begin nice and easy with something that makes up the backbone of many people’s environmentally friendly efforts.

Something simple.

Something that everyone’s heard about, even if they’re not quite doing it yet.

Recycling!

1. Explain

If you know why you’re doing something, it’s far easier to find the motivation to begin doing it and stick with it, too. Sharing information about the beneficial effects of recycling on our waste streams can do a lot to increase understanding about why it makes such a difference when you toss an aluminum can into a blue bin instead of a trash bag.

Here are some quick statistics (adapted from The Recycling Guide) that underscore why recycling is so important:

  • One recycled tin can saves enough energy to power a television for three hours.
  • One recycled glass bottle saves enough energy to power a computer for 25 minutes.
  • One recycled plastic bottle saves enough energy to power a 60-watt light bulb for three hours.
  • Seventy percent less energy is required to recycle paper compared with making it from raw materials.

You see, it’s not just about waste reduction — although that is a huge part of it; according to some estimates, you can reduce your household waste output by 60 percent simply by recycling — recycling also has a massive impact on reducing the amount of water, energy and raw resources that are required to produce an entirely new product from raw materials.

2. Enable

We’ve heard of the bad kind of enablers — those who make it easy for someone to continue engaging in negative or harmful behaviors. But it’s possible to enable positive behavior, too — in this case, recycling. The key is to make it easy.

We humans are an incredible species capable of creating great things — cheese, the written word, Beyoncé — but we’re also incredibly lazy. Thus, if something’s not easy, we are far less likely to do it, especially if there’s no immediate payoff.

In fact, a Huffington Post article published last August states that “the primary excuse people gave for not recycling was that recycling wasn’t convenient or accessible to them.” The article delved into the psychology of people who don’t recycle, featuring an interview with Jessica Nolan, associate psychology professor at the University of Scranton. Nolan found that research supported the importance of making it easy, saying, “Obviously if the infrastructure is not there, you can’t expect people to participate in a program that doesn’t exist. … We know that convenience is one of the strongest predictors of whether or not somebody will participate.”

So, with this in mind, if you want people to recycle, make it convenient! If you’re at work, place recycling bins right beside the garbage cans with an easy-to-read recycling guide taped above the bin. If you’re at home, set up an accessible recycling center and explain to family members how to use it. If you’re dealing with extended family, place a friendly call to remind them on their recycling day or stop by to pick up their bins if you’re headed to the recycling depot yourself.

3. Empower

This one is perhaps the most important piece to remember because no matter how enthusiastic you are about the eco-friendly changes you’re making, empowering someone means giving them the tools and the power to do it on their own. It’s very easy to slip from encouraging to nagging, and no one likes to be nagged.

So where’s the line? Well, education is empowering; preaching is not. Supportive enabling is empowering; shaming, guilting and lecturing is not. One of the most surefire ways to squash someone’s budding interest is to become a holier-than-thou enviro-nag always on her soapbox.

Remember that it took you years to get to where you are on your green journey and everyone is dealing with different challenges. By all means, educate, offer resources and continue to support those who are trying to be a little greener, but keep in mind that at the end of the day, all you can control is your own behavior.

Happy recycling!

Madeleine Somerville

Madeleine Somerville is the author of All You Need Is Less: An Eco-Friendly Guide to Guilt-Free Green Living and Stress-Free Simplicity. She is a writer, wannabe hippie and lover of soft cheeses. She lives in Edmonton, Canada, with her daughter. You can also find Madeleine at her blog, Sweet Madeleine.

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