This research is delivered in partnership with The Circulate Initiative.
Recycling behavior has an outsized influence on the economics of recycling. Around 80% of post-consumer waste could be recycled or composted, but when people don’t separate their waste at the source, most of these materials remain out of reach for the recycling industry. With the global recycling rate languishing at 16%, we face a pervasive supply shortage of recyclables – even as demand grows, the environmental harms of unrecycled waste worsen, corporate recycling commitments are increasingly at risk. Activating more communities to do their part is more important than ever.
But changing behavior is hard – is it worth the cost? Analysis of Delterra’s Rethinking Recycling projects in Indonesia and Argentina suggests the answer is yes. Across an informal settlement in Buenos Aires, a set of urban districts in Bali, and a mid-sized Argentinian city, we found that boosting recycling behaviors costs less than the value of the new recyclables that result, and is more cost-effective than relying on technology to do the work. With enough smart investment at scale, recycling participation can reach levels high enough to support new investments in recycling infrastructure.
We welcome you to join us in building out the fact base on recycling behavior ROI. In coming months, we plan to release tools for others to analyze and plan recycling behavior change efforts. We’ll publish practical lessons we are learning in the field about effective community engagement. And we’ll invite other organizations to share their behavior change insights as well. Recycling behavior can reshape what’s possible for the circular economy. Let’s find out how to make the right investments in that potential.
1: PROMOTING RECYCLING BEHAVIOR CAN PAY BACK QUICKLY, ESPECIALLY WHEN PRICES REFLECT ENVIRONMENTAL IMPACTS.
It takes Delterra’s projects 5 years to break even on behavior change based on recyclables sales alone, and only 2-4 years with landfill cost savings and environmental credits included. Putting a price on the environmental benefits of recycling matters.
2: BEHAVIOR CHANGE COSTS LESS THAN TECHNOLOGY-BASED ALTERNATIVES FOR BOOSTING RECYCLING OUTCOMES.
Promoting recycling behavior cost Delterra’s project $50-150 for every additional ton of recyclables per year, compared to waste-sorting technology that would have cost $200-700 per ton to achieve a similar effect.
3: DEEPER INVESTMENT IN COMMUNITY ENGAGEMENT IS LIKELY NEEDED TO REACH HIGH RECYCLING RATES.
The Delterra projects that invest more per household achieve higher participation rates – which we need to meet the world’s demand for recyclables.
About the Authors
Delterra is an environmental nonprofit on a mission to create a world where human activities protect and restore a healthy planet. Delterra’s founding partner is McKinsey & Company, and its flagship initiative, Rethinking Recycling, works with communities in emerging economies to build rapidly scalable, self-sustaining waste management and recycling ecosystems that redirect waste into productive use while improving the lives of the people it touches. In the coming years, Delterra will add other initiatives to its portfolio, all with a view to developing innovative scalable solutions that redesign human systems for the good of people and the planet. Learn more at: https://www.delterra.org
The Circulate Initiative is a non-profit organization committed to solving the ocean plastic pollution challenge by supporting the incubation of circular, inclusive and investible waste management and recycling systems in South and Southeast Asia. We achieve this by collaborating with key stakeholders across the sector, and by producing insights to support and accelerate investment and scale across the value chain. Learn more at: https://www.thecirculateinitiative.org/