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Human behaviour and sustainability

Rubbish for recycling

18 March 2020

Today is Global Recycling Day, raising awareness about projects, innovation and initiatives which focus on the sustainable and inclusive development of recycling. Here we look at the importance of human behaviour in promoting sustainability.

Muriel Cozier

Recycling and the circular economy is something that most people accept; it is not only necessary but also a good thing. However the ultimate success of these approaches depends on consumer behaviour. According to a research team funded by the Irish Research Council and the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme, the role of consumer behaviour remains an area which has not been explored in great depth.

Publishing their work in Resources, Conservation & Recycling and focusing on electronic waste, the team highlights that European countries collect around one third of the e-waste produced under official schemes with ‘significant quantities going to non-compliant waste management channels.’ In addition, the team notes that products themselves exhibit little evidence of design supporting end-of-life resource recovery. Indeed modern electronic products contain complex materials which make them incompatible with current recycling processes. ‘Design for end-of-life has not been a priority. Overall the lack of progress is disappointing, considering how much policy development and technological research has taken place,’ the research paper says.

To progress the circular economy researchers assert that better designed products and business models that allow product lifetime extension, reuse of goods and components, along with efficient material recovery are steps that will optimise the circular economy approach.

Decisions made by consumers are also pivotal in a product’s lifecycle in terms of its purchase, use and end-of-life management. ‘Users’ behaviour and decision making during these stages have direct implications to the success of not only the most preferred options in a circular economy, but also subsequent recovery at the product end-of-life,’ the researchers assert.

Many environmental problems are rooted in human behaviour and behavioural changes are therefore needed to utilise the potential of technological innovations helping environmental sustainability. The efficiency of intervention strategies promoting pro-environmental behaviours based on information campaigns is limited, mainly because environmental literacy does not necessarily translate into sustainable consumption behaviour.

The research team believes that the gap between circular economy principles and consumer practices may be bridged with the help of behavioural insights without significantly altering the product lifecycle systems. In addition, at the end of a product’s life, behavioural interventions can be designed to motivate users and facilitate proper disposal for better management of e-waste.

DOI:10.1016/j.rcrx2020.100035

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