A recent New York Times story sought to demystify recycling and explain its importance to a general audience. They covered which materials are easiest (metal and paper) and hardest (glass and plastic) to recycle, encouraged people to consider how recyclable the packaging of the purchases is, and emphasized the necessity of following sorting instructions: “If you throw in stuff they don’t want, the effort needed to weed it out makes it less likely that anything will get recycled at all.”

Recycling is one of the more accessible pro-environmental actions we can take as individuals. There is historical evidence suggesting that household waste was systematically reused dating as far back as 400 B.C., with isotopic testing indicating that the Byzantines recycled glass in the ancient city of Sagalassos (modern-day Turkey).

In America, some soft drink producers used a deposit system to incentivize people to return their empty glass bottles in the 1870s. Deposit schemes are still alive and well in the Netherlands, with (certain) glass, plastic and metal drink containers being accepted and shoppers receiving 25 cents back for their effort (with proposal to raise that to 50 cents in 2025).

The modern “reduce-reuse-recycle” slogan and the iconic three green arrows chasing each other around a triangle has its roots in the 1970s in America, when the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act was passed in 1976 and gave the Environmental Protection Agency the authority to control hazardous waste.

The reuse and recycle bits of the slogan are increasingly a given, with repair cafes and local upcycling initiatives making it more appealing to give your used stuff new life. But the “reduce” part is still lagging behind, even though there is still plenty to progress to be made in preventing the worst case scenarios of global warming through consuming less.

Despite its comparative ease of use, recycling is actually the least impactful behavior when you look at waste. Our research shows that it is much more impactful to reduce the use of materials, namely by choosing not to buy something or avoiding packaging that cannot be recycled. In her 2024 paper, Julia Koch (along with our colleagues Ellen van der Werff and Linda Steg, among others) found that the environmental impact of recycling behavior is much smaller than consuming less.

It has been known for a long time that “reduce” is more impactful than “recycle”, and the order of the words in the slogan reflects their importance. Koch’s paper also looked at the plasticity of these behaviors, which means the share of consumers who are not yet engaging in the behaviour but would be willing to do so if circular goods and services are easily accessible and affordable. And consumers who are not yet doing something also represent a group where progress can be made.

Recycling’s widespread popularity is actually a dual edged sword. Most people already recycle, so besides the impact being small, there is not a lot to gain in terms of getting more people to do it. Reduce has more impact, and people are doing it a lot less than they are willing, so there is also a lot of ground to be won there.

Still, people’s willingness and ability to recycle depends on how easy their local infrastructure makes it. A 2022 paper by Josefine Geiger, Ellen van der Werff, Berfu Unal and Linda Steg showed that context (namely recycling infrastructure) is key, because if it doesn’t take much additional effort to do it, people are likelier to take part. Another route to promote recycling is focusing on biospheric values: when recycling is very difficult, residents with stronger pro-environmental values are most likely to recycle.

Locally, the municipality of Groningen is aiming to have zero residual waste by the year 2030. Maybe they can look to a small Japanese town to see how they do it: Kamikatsu, which has 1,500 residents, has 45 different categories for recyclables. They also use gamification to make it more fun for residents, with the top recycler in town each month receiving special recognition for the title. Perhaps Kamikatsu’s next step could be assessing who in the village has voluntarily bought the least stuff over the past month and give them a moment in the spotlight, too.

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