by David Goldstein

Monday, Nov. 15, was the 25th annual national America Recycles Day, and this year’s theme was “I want to be recycled.” That may sound more like the promotional slogan for an all-natural funeral services provider, but it’s actually built on a curious phenomenon first discovered through focus group studies conducted by the California Department of Conservation (now part of CalRecycle, the California Department of Resources Recycling and Recovery) and used in its early 1990s campaigns to promote bottle and can recycling. People are more motivated to recycle when recyclable items are personified. 

For example, a promotional image on an America Recycles Day web page featured a metal can next to a bicycle. In a dialogue box, as if the metal was narrating its life on a social media account, it said, “I used to be a can. Now I am blazing trails.”

Keep America Beautiful, the nonprofit partner of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency which organized and promoted America Recycles Day events nationally, also employed another clever marketing method for increasing commitment to recycling. At www.kab.org/programs/ard/pledge/ is the America Recycles Day 2021 pledge. As documented in his book Fostering Sustainable Behavior, Douglas McKenzie-Mohr explains how pledges are part of a good “community-based social marketing” strategy. People recycle more when they publicly pledge to do so, according to the author. 

People pledge not only to “recycle more,” and “buy products made with recycled content,” but also to encourage one family member or one friend to take the #BeRecycled pledge.” Thus, Keep America Beautiful continues to spread the message through “affinity marketing,” sending the message to new contacts through trusted sources.

Bolstering the psychological impact of the pledge, Keep America Beautiful employs yet another marketing method to increase recycling. The website prominently features two recycling scoreboards. The first is the national recycling rate, which is 34%. The second is the number of people who have taken the recycling pledge this year on the Keep America Beautiful website. As of Monday, the counter on the website recorded nearly 88,000 people nationwide taking the pledge.

The personification of recyclables, the formality of a public pledge, and affinity marketing do not really increase my motivational level for recycling. But America Recycles Day organizers got me with the scoreboard. “Let’s get those numbers up!” I involuntarily thought to myself.

Of course, one crucial element of increased recycling cannot be boosted by marketing. People need convenient opportunities to recycle. 

In celebration of America Recycles Day, at the Ventura County Government Center, the General Services Agency (GSA) and the Public Works Agency provided one such opportunity with an electronic waste collection event. Cyndy Taschman, a GSA program administrator who helped coordinate the event, is already organizing another electronic waste collection event, which will be open to the public and will be offered in about six months. Recycling electronic waste conserves resources, funds job creation and keeps toxics out of landfills.

Still active in celebration of America Recycles Day is a tool to help the Ventura County Public Works’ Integrated Waste Management Division improve local recycling outreach and education. Complete a recycling survey at www.surveymonkey.com/r/673TZCK and become eligible to win sustainable prizes, such as washable metal straws.

The survey employs an additional marketing technique to promote recycling. It includes suggestions designed as questions. For example, respondents are asked to agree or disagree with these statements: “I have a dedicated place inside my home for recyclables”; “If I’m not sure an item can be recycled, I will toss it in the trash instead of contaminating the recycling by ‘wishcycling’”; and “When making purchases, I try to choose items without excessive packaging and/or packaging that can be recycled.”

Regardless of how you are motivated, America Recycles Day is a good opportunity to recommit to recycling.

David Goldstein, an Environmental Resource Analyst with Ventura County Public Works, can be reached at david.goldstein@ventura.org or 805-658-4312.