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  • Writer's pictureDiana Dudenhoeffer

How to convince your loved ones to recycle

Photo by Afif Kusuma on Unsplash

It’s human nature: When you care deeply and intensely about something, you want to spread the word about it. Whether it’s a new hobby, a favorite coffee shop or a passion for recycling, it’s natural to want the folks in your circles to hop on the bandwagon.

But it’s not always easy to get others to take action.

It may seem obvious to you that recycling is awesome, easy, important or some other combination of positive adjectives, but you can’t just force a lifestyle decision on someone else. (Trust us, we’ve tried.) Persuading others to act on an important environmental issue can be complicated, though, and if you’ve ever tried to convince a friend, family member or neighbor to recycle to no avail, you may be feeling dejected. But not all is lost.

So how can you help your loved ones get on board with the important action of recycling? Below are OHRD’s tips for convincing friends and family to recycle.

Don’t resort to guilt-tripping.

“You do realize you’re killing our planet each time you’re too lazy to separate trash from recyclables, right?”

Approaching your loved ones with a holier-than-thou attitude, making accusations or blaming is rarely an effective persuasion technique. Your friends are liable to only respond to your assertions with indignation or defensiveness.

It’s easy to fall into the trap of believing people who don’t recycle are lazy, but it’s possible sloth has little or nothing to do with your friends’ disinclinations. Many of us know the importance of recycling, understand the impacts of human-caused climate change, and see the footage online of sea turtles harmed by single-use straws — and still don’t recycle. Isn’t that just being lazy? Not quite.

Psychologists call this phenomenon “cognitive dissonance,” a conflict that occurs in a person’s mind when their values and actions are not operating in unison. Combatting recycling apathy and cognitive dissonance includes supplying information and empowering people to make their own decisions about the things they value.

Avoid making assumptions about someone’s character, priorities or intelligence. It’s always important to remember: What’s obvious to you is not always obvious to others.

Focus on the things that matter to them, especially if they aren’t an environmentalist.

“Outside of sustainability, there are plenty of reasons to recycle. Robust recycling efforts create jobs. It means more resource streams can enter the economy. It’s free to drop off your recycling, and you won’t have to take the trash out as often.”

Appeal to the areas of persuasion that are most likely to strike a chord with your loved ones, not just the areas that convinced YOU to start recycling. This is especially important for those who aren’t particularly swayed by slogans like “Save the Whales” or “Don’t be a Litterbug.”

Put the issues you care about in a new light. Explain them in terms they’re liable to relate to.

Is your friend thrifty? Talk about how much they’d save on trash bags. Are they busy? Be honest in how much time it takes you to separate your recycling. Do they care about shopping local? Boast about Springfield-owned recyclers.

Model behavior you want to see in others.

“I can’t wait to see you on Friday, but I need to drop off my recycling before we go to lunch. I’d love it if you joined me.”

Most parenthood classes have lessons on role-modeling and character integrity. If you want your children to grow up as honest people, for instance, parents should model that behavior by always telling the truth. If your kids are always catching you in a lie, they’ll assume honesty is not important or desirable.

By the same token, if you want to lead by example, your non-recycling friends should always see you practicing good recycling integrity. Being a role model for those your same age or even those older than you might sound strange at first, but it will be very influential to those around you if you are always practicing good recycling habits when you are around your friends.

Pick up litter on the sidewalk. Bring a reusable water bottle. Your loved ones will notice, and your behavior will get them thinking.

Because recycling is an abstract concept to a lot of us, and because we don’t often have a close relationship with our trash, we adopt the mantra “out of sight, out of mind.” Many of those who don’t engage in municipal recycling initiatives have no reason to visit a recycling center and therefore have no idea what one looks like. Seeing that recycling is possible—and easy—can be a great motivator to get started.

Invite your friends to come to the recycling center with you. Show off the sorting setup in your home. Seeing your work can rub off on them, and they’ll pick up on your pride.

Start small.

“I noticed you drink a can of Coke with your lunch sometimes. It won’t be overwhelming to recycle if you start with just your soda cans.”

Many people attribute their recycling reluctance to a perceived overcomplication or time commitment. These perceived barriers can cause a mental block, and many will convince themselves they’ll never have the time or energy to commit to the act.

There are plenty of advantages of starting small. It’s less commitment, less time and mitigates overwhelm. Plus, making small changes slowly means you can celebrate small achievements as you master new skills. Small achievements lead to greater confidence, which lead to bigger achievements.

In the wise words of Desmond Tutu: “There’s only one way to eat an elephant: a bite at a time.”

Remind your loved ones that they don’t have to be perfect. They’re allowed to ask questions, and they don’t have to start an intimidating new act by themselves. Direct them to the OHRD website so they can learn more about recycling!

Do it for them, at least at first.

“I’m leaving this cardboard box next to your trashcan. Put your Coke cans there instead of in the trash, and I’ll get the box from you when I come over next week.”

Without slipping into enabling behavior, try gathering your loved ones’ recycling for them. This tip is best employed short-term—that is, we don’t recommend getting into the habit of overextending yourself for the sake of others.

But recycling for your friends, family or neighbors just a few times demonstrates that you are committed, and that they can choose their level of commitment, too. By leaving a cardboard box for Coke cans next to the trashcan, you’ve lowered the barrier and almost eliminated the possibility of failure. They still have the freedom to choose to recycle without feeling forced.

It will take no extra effort to put the soda cans into the cardboard box, and that’s what you hope to prove: Recycling isn’t as hard as some people might think.

Don’t get apocalyptic.

“Our air, water, land — all of the planet’s ecosystems are in jeopardy. And if we don’t do something now, we’ll all suffer from the consequences of our irresponsibility.”

Even as the climate catastrophe grows ever more, well, catastrophic, it’s best to not conjure ideas of worst case-scenarios to people who already object to recycling. Trying to light a fire under someone’s pants by lecturing them about doomsday is rarely effective unless they already possess a mindset conducive to processing the information and channeling it into something productive.

It’s best to save arguments like the one above to use as you engage with stakeholders, policymakers and producers who are able to invoke immediate, large-scale changes. Tell your senators you want them to sponsor meaningful climate legislation. Attend climate protests. Don’t project the whole of your climate anxieties onto your friend who doesn’t recycle.

Instead, focus your words on additions, not subtraction. When we talk about “don’t do this; don’t do that,” others are likely to feel starved. Subtractive, negative talk like “don’t throw glass into the trashcan” sparks thoughts of pessimism, deprivation and loss. Try turning your words around to elicit more positivity, like “Use recycling centers as an alternative to landfills.”

The second phrase, as opposed to “don’t throw glass into the trashcan,” achieves two things. It reframes the situation from one of hardship to one of prosperity, and it engenders a positive feeling of replacement. We have the choice to use recycling centers, and we aren’t boxed in.

Listen to their objections. I mean it.

“You’re right to infer that recycling is complicated; I felt the same way when I first started. I have confidence you’ll get the hang of it.”

Listen. Actually listen.

When most people think they are listening, they are actually just thinking about what they’re going to say as soon as it’s their turn to talk. When your friend voices a grievance about recycling, your job is to not immediately shut the argument down. Rather, affirm and validate their concerns.

One effective listening technique is to repeat their hesitations back to them in your own words. This proves that you heard and understood them.

Try something like: “It sounds like your job really has you tied up. I understand you feel you’re too busy to recycle, and you don’t need anything extra on your plate right now. I am willing to help you get started.”

Be willing to concede

“I can see that you’re tired; I’ll drop it for today.”

Today might not be the day you convince your loved ones to recycle. We’ve all met someone we couldn’t out-stubborn, and it may be the case that your friend’s mind is made up. Don’t keep hounding them all day, and be compassionate about their attitudes and feelings.

Many of these tips are effective in the long-term, so don’t expect changes overnight. Keep leading by example, keep talking about the things that matter to you, and keep encouraging those around you.


About the Author

Diana Dudenhoeffer is a multimedia journalist from Springfield, Missouri. She studied journalism, sustainability and documentary storytelling at Missouri State University. She is the current media intern at OHRD, writing blogposts like this one.


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