Safe and sustainable disposal of technical and electronic waste is important as it can contain hazardous substances including lead, mercury and acids. Participation by consumers is required to separate these items from household waste and then provide them for appropriate collection.
Studies on the level of consumer participation in such schemes have typically focused on internal (i.e. demographic and psychological) qualities of the participant rather than external factors such as access to recycling points and communication activities. They have also frequently relied on reported intention to participate rather than actual behaviour. This study used the launch of a system of battery recycling drop-off bins as an opportunity to examine the impact of both bin proximity and communication style on actual consumer participation.
The drop-off bins were installed in a town in northern Italy in April 2022. Prior to the installation, the municipal authority sent letters to residents encouraging them to participate in the programme. Working with the researchers, the municipality prepared two different versions of the letter and sent them to randomly-assigned households in equal proportions. The only difference between the two versions was the way in which information about the risks posed by inappropriate battery disposal was presented.
In the ‘numerical’ form, the letter stated that ‘a battery contains approximately one gram of mercury, an amount that can pollute a quantity of water equivalent to 1 000 litres’, and that consequently ‘we risk polluting approximately 354 000 000 litres of water every year’.
In the ‘metaphorical’ form, the letter said that one gram of mercury ‘can pollute a quantity of water equivalent to seven bathtubs,’ and that ‘we risk polluting the equivalent of 140 Olympic swimming pools every year’.
The letters also included a disposal bag for depositing batteries at the drop-off bins. These were individually numbered so that they could be assigned to specific households on collection. After two weeks the municipality emptied the bins and the researchers logged the number of batteries deposited by each household. They assigned each household a ‘sustainable disposal rate’ between 0% and 100% (in 25% steps) based on the number of batteries returned and the number of residents at the address.
The collection returned batteries from 360 identified households. The researchers report that households within five kilometres of the nearest bin were more likely to use the facilities (52% average disposal rate) than those further away (40%). They also report that, of the households closer to a bin, those receiving the ‘metaphorical’ letter were more likely to use the facility (59%) than those receiving the numerical version (44%).
Previous studies based on self-reported intention to recycle have returned equivocal results on the influence of distance from the recycling point. This study on actual behaviour confirms that distance is a significant factor, say the researchers. They recommend that this should be taken into consideration when determining collection locations for such schemes.
The researchers also highlight the influence of the style of communication on the disposal rate of consumers within five kilometres of a bin. They note that the use of ‘metaphorical’ information is common in marketing and other related fields, but its effectiveness has not previously been demonstrated for participation in sustainable disposal schemes. They argue that this result should be taken into consideration when preparing communication materials for such schemes.
The researchers identify potential limitations with their study. They suggest that the use of metaphorical information may have less influence when communicating quantities that are more familiar to consumers in everyday life, such as smaller volumes or monetary values. They observe that in some areas, disposal facilities are provided at sites that consumers visit regularly (such as shops) and that distance to the facility may have less influence in these cases. They also suggest that these factors would be suitable topics for future research.
Acuti, D., Lemarié, L., and Viglia, G. (2023) How to enhance the sustainable disposal of harmful products. Technological Forecasting and Social Change 186: 122151. Available from: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.techfore.2022.122151 [Accessed 31 July 2023].
To cite this article/service:
“Science for Environment Policy”: European Commission DG Environment News Alert Service, edited by the Science Communication Unit, The University of the West of England, Bristol.
Notes on content:
The contents and views included in Science for Environment Policy are based on independent, peer reviewed research and do not necessarily reflect the position of the European Commission. Please note that this article is a summary of only one study. Other studies may come to other conclusions.
- Publication date
- 10 August 2023
- Directorate-General for Environment