Over the last few years, we’ve been tracking a decline in concern for several environmental issues in our Pulse studies – hypothesizing that some issues (like climate change) have become highly politicized and that the country’s declining economy has given Americans more immediate worries to focus on. One of the few environmental issues that has bucked this trend is trash.
In our recently released Green Living Pulse™ study (GLP2012), getting caught throwing trash out of the car window was the only environmentally-related issue for which a majority of Americans (63%) would be very embarrassed.
People “get” this issue. It’s tangible. Hollywood makes movies about it (i.e., Wall-E). Children of the 70s have the PSA image of the “crying Indian” and Woodsy Owl’s admonition “Give a hoot! Don’t pollute!” burned into our brains. “Dispose of your trash responsibly” has become one of our nation’s cultural norms.
In GLP2012, almost 70% of Americans claimed they always recycle their aluminum cans; 64% said they always recycle plastic containers or bottles. While we know there’s a lot of exaggeration in these claims (the EPA estimates that only 50% of aluminum and 29% of PET plastic bottles and jars were recycled in 2010), the fact that they’re fudging means they care.
So what’s created this success? It’s taken forty years of pushing multiple behavioral levers, including education and fines and making the desired behavior incredibly convenient. Children’s perceptions were influenced in the 1970s with well-executed PSAs and supplemental classroom curriculum. Municipalities instituted fines for littering and began seriously investigating illegal dumping sites. Finally, curbside trash and recycling pick-up has become the norm. Green Living Pulse found that 60% of recyclers have access to curbside, mixed bin recycling. If you make it easy, Americans are much more likely to participate.
What’s the next step for trash? “Do it for me.” Almost three quarters of GLP2012 respondents thought that companies bear some/ very much responsibility for the end-of-life disposal of the products they manufacture. Specifically, almost 50% said that companies should offer take-back programs with drop-off at major retailers. In other words, “Give a hoot! Take back your loot!”