Reducing waste production and increasing recycling must begin at the community level. Educating residents about recycling, changing community norms to support recycling, providing low cost and convenient recycling opportunities, de-incentivizing trash disposal and enforcing penalties for illicit trash dumping represent just a few of the activities best supported and managed by local municipal governments.

Unfortunately, few communities have historically invested sufficient resources to effectively support recycling amongst their residents. This reality, coupled with the fact that trash disposal is relatively convenient and often well subsidized, leaves many residents with the unsurprising view that their community does not value recycling.

For change to occur, communities must create policies and provide resources to their residents to motivate and support recycling efforts. Fortunately, emerging studies are now beginning to provide empirical evidence to develop best practices.

A recent project published in the Journal of Environmental Psychology, which examined recycling rates across 245 communities in Massachusetts, highlights several areas where community investment in recycling will likely lead to a significant improvement in outcomes. Using data collected over a five-year period by the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection combined with follow-up interviews conducted with individual town managers, heads of public works and public health departments, co-author Nicholas Boileau and I identified several community policies, practices, and resources that significantly affect municipal recycling rates.

Among the findings, three concrete actions emerged that municipal governments should strongly consider implementing to reduce recycling barriers and promote this environmentally friendly behavior in a sustainable way.

The most effective strategy for enhancing municipal recycling rates was having a pay-as-you-throw trash (PAYT) program within a community. With PAYT, residents pay a fee either per trash bag or per bin of waste disposed of, but are not typically charged for recycled materials. In our study, communities implementing PAYT demonstrated an average of 8 percent greater rates of municipal recycling compared to municipalities without PAYT. This figure represents averages based upon a proportion of the overall tonnage of waste disposed of in a community.

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