NC Department of Environment and Natural Resources
Identify Barriers & Benefits
Social Marketing > Barriers

Why don't people recycle?

  • People are not aware of the activity or its benefits. People may not know that recycling facilities exist in their area, down the hall in their dorm or at the grocery store near their home. Many people do not directly see the benefits of recycling, including improved air quality, energy savings and job creation.            
  • People who are aware of the activity may see difficulties or barriers associated with it. Having to take recycling to a drop-off center or not having a recycling bin next to each trash can may be seen as an inconvenience.
  • People do not see barriers yet do not alter their behavior because there is no direct benefit for them. They may think it's easier to throw everything in the garbage than to place recyclables into a separate container. They wonder, "What's the point in recycling? It all ends up in the trash anyway, right?" As we all know, WRONG!


Barriers and benefits to recycling
Barriers can be different depending on your community. Some areas may have curbside collection for every residence, while others may have only drop-off centers. But no matter how people recycle, multiple strategies and channels exist to promote recycling in any community. Here are some common barriers for recycling participation:

  • Convenience: “Recycling is not available at my home/apartment/dorm.”
  • Established habits: “I can’t remember to recycle.”
  • Beliefs: “Recycling is not important.”
  • Time: “Recycling takes too much time.”
  • Misinformation: “Recycling gets thrown in the trash.”
Before starting any program, project or marketing campaign you should identify the barriers and benefits that your clients have about your topic. This is often thought of as “knowing your audience.” You wouldn’t conduct the same activity with a third grader that you would with a college student because the same things do not motivate both groups. You can target the early adapters or low hanging fruit but to really tip the program or project it will be necessary to do more.

During your project there will be two distinct sets of benefits which will entice individuals to take action. Real benefits such as money, time and health and perceived benefits including “to fit in,” “it’s expected of me,” and “I will get rewarded.” These reward systems can be used concurrently or separately. Using both methods at the same time will help the program realize its most significant potential.

Additionally, it is necessary to be aware of the barriers that may prevent the project from realizing its desired potential. Real and perceived barriers can include: physical, economic, education and social barriers. It is not always easy to overcome these barriers but a well-thought-out and organized project will be able to move beyond these noted boundaries. Assessing these concerns with your constituents will help you figure out which barriers are real.

When identifying barriers, think about what can be attributed to the individual, such as a lack of knowledge to carry out the behavior. Also consider those barriers attributed to the external world, such as having to take recyclables to a drop-off location. Details on how to identify and overcome barriers are shown below.

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How do I find out more about barriers?
The authors of Fostering Sustainable Behavior recommend conducting literature reviews, focus groups, observational studies and surveys or polls to learn more about your audience and how best to communicate with them.

The four most common reasons for skipping barrier identification include:

  • The belief that the barriers are already known,
  • Time pressures,
  • Financial constraints, and
  • Management that doesn’t support the research.
It is important to not let these barriers stop you from doing some research. In the end it will save you a considerable amount of time. Research doesn’t have to cost a ton of money either – there are many inexpensive methods you can use to get the results you are looking for.

Try some of these methods below and learn from others.

1. Literature Reviews
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2. Surveys
  • Conducting surveys is a good method to learn about your constituents if dealing with a large population. Be sure to think about the audience you are trying to reach and find an appropriate method to ensure the greatest participation. Consider creating an online survey and putting the survey link in your community newsletter (although only interested parties will answer the survey).
  • Samples of survey questions –
  • Samples of local government and state agency survey results –
  • Newspaper articles about local government recycling surveys –
3. Focus Groups 4. Personal Interviews
  • Talking with people one-on-one allows you to get a true sense of how they feel. This method can be effective when trying to understand someone’s full opinion, as opposed to a focus group where everyone may not have the chance to explain all aspects of their viewpoint. However, the need for extra personnel makes this method costly and time-consuming, so it is best used for specific groups that are otherwise hard to pinpoint. Consider pursuing one-on-one interviews in a neighborhood with low recycling participation in its curbside program.
  • Information on how to conduct an interview.

How do we overcome the barriers?
Successful environmental programs eliminate barriers AND increase the benefits of a behavior. To do this: You must determine the behavior you want to promote – recycling, green buying, composting, etc. You should also consider the target audience – apartment dwellers, college-age males or a specific subdivision. Finally, consider the conditions an individual will face when trying to adopt the behavior. By getting into the mind of the individual, you can better understand why they do not already engage in the behavior.

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Pollution Prevention
North Carolina Division of Pollution Prevention and Environmental Assistance
1639 Mail Service Center, Raleigh, NC 27699-1639     (919) 707-8100    (877) 623-6748      Privacy Policy /Disclaimer