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Why brown people don't recycle....Sort of

Why brown people don't recycle....Sort of

Calvin Lakhan, Ph.D

September 15, 2022

One of my key research focuses, particularly earlier in my career, was the role of race and ethnicity as antecedents to recycling behavior, as well as ethnic variation in self-reported attitudes and behaviors towards the environment. Whenever I gave presentations on the topic, I quickly learned that describing my research in this way would result in blank stares and a general apathy. To remedy this, I began to describe my research as "Why brown people don't recycle", quickly followed by "It's OK, I'm allowed to say that, I'm brown". While not all people appreciated the tongue in cheek humor, at the very least, it grabbed their attention.

I would then start off these talks by providing an anecdote about my father, a highly regarded environmental scientist professor, who was a pioneer in the field of remote sensing and the author of several books on resource management. He didn't recycle either (and he also happened to be brown). This was not a case of not knowing what to do, or the importance of recycling and its role in sustainability, he just thought it wasn't worth his time to do it. Growing up, I would get frustrated at his reticence to recycle, but it would later serve as a jumping off point for my research: Why was this happening?

Most of the academic literature on the topic of race/ethnicity/culture on recycling behavior tended to focus on a lack of awareness as being the primary barrier to participation, but I couldn't help but feel that there was more to this issue. My hypothesis was that recycling participation is premised on repeated actions overtime until the act of recycling becomes habitual. Given that many new Canadians come from countries that do not necessarily have formal recycling programs, or the same attitudes and perceptions surrounding how waste is managed (and by whom), a lack of past experience/exposure to recycling would be a primary barrier to participation. To further isolate this effect, I decided to compare attitudes towards the environment and recycling among both first and second generation Canadians. Assuming that past recycling behavior is a predictor of future recycling participation, then we would expect to see differences between these two groups (even if they belong to the same household).

Below is an excerpt from this study (which was a follow up to a study that I conducted in 2015).

This study examined differences in  self-reported recycling behavior and attitudes toward recycling between first and second generation immigrants in Ontario, Canada. Differences were observed between the two groups, with second generation respondents viewing recycling more favorably, as well as indicating higher levels of recycling awareness and recycling participation. In most instances, differences in self-reported recycling behavior were significant – for example, second generation respondents agreed with the statement “I think recycling is important”, twice as often as first generation responders. With these results in mind, this study sought to explore why these differences exist, specifically examining whether past recycling/waste management experiences influence current attitudes toward recycling. While it is possible that differences in self-reported recycling behavior between first and second generation immigrants are explained by differences in age, education, income and other sociodemographic variables, a regression analysis revealed that these factors are weak predictors of recycling participation, and cannot readily explain differences in recycling perceptions and behavior.

Conventional curbside recycling and source separation were not common waste management practices in first generation respondents’ country of origin. Waste picking, reuse, incineration, and open dumping were all reported at a higher frequency than curbside recyclable collection. More than 45% of all first generation respondents agreed (or strongly agreed) with the statement “The first time I recycled was in Canada” (using the studies definition of what constituted recycling). One may posit that without a habitual precedent for participating in recycling activity, the intent/desire to engage in recycling would be diminished. This assumption is not principally inconsistent with our understanding of Ajzen’s theory of planned behavior, where in behavioral intent is a function of attitudes toward the behavior, normative belief (social pressures from society, family and friends) and perceived levels of behavioral control (perceived ease or difficulty in performing the behavior).

Within the context of first generation recyclers, there are significant barriers to the antecedents to recycling behavior. In many of the countries that new Canadians immigrate from, recycling (source separation at the point of generation) is neither encouraged, nor expected. Sorting recyclables is almost a societal taboo in some instances, as it is generally considered a subsistence activity carried out by the informal sector. There are also fewer opportunities to recycle due to a lack of mature integrated waste management infrastructure. The social and regulatory pressures to recycle that exist in Canada are absent in many developing countries. As such, when first generation immigrants migrate to Canada, there may be a “cultural lag” with respect to recycling behavior. Until there is significant acculturation with respect to waste management practices, first generation immigrants may express less concern for recycling, resulting in lower levels of recycling participation. While this study could not definitely conclude that acculturation (with respect to recycling) will occur over time, a review of surveys/interviews with second generation immigrants lends credence to this hypothesis. Second generation immigrants who were born and raised in Canada expressed higher levels of recycling awareness and participation relative to first generation immigrants. This study observed a convergence of values, attitudes and behaviors among all second generation Canadians (irrespective of parents country of origin). In fact, there was no statistically significant difference in recycling participation between second generation Canadians and multi-generation Canadians. Exposure to, and participation in provincial recycling programs ultimately reinforces positive attitudes toward recycling and establish household recycling as a habitual behavior.

This research highlights the need to effectively engage first generation immigrants in meaningful and culturally relevant ways. There is no one size fits all strategy for engaging with different ethnic groups, necessitating that alternatives to conventional recycling promotion and education are explored. Assuming that there are barriers to recycling participation resulting from retained attitudes toward waste and recycling, municipalities need to design policies that specifically overcome said barriers in and foster enduring changes in behavior. Communicating why recycling is important, what constitutes appropriate recyclable material and increasing awareness about existing waste management services is crucial in promoting recycling among all households. However, the mediums and methods in which this information is communicated needs to be specifically tailored to ethnic communities, particularly those who immigrated to Canada.

Originally posted on LinkedIn