When Effective Communication is Not Always Enough

This past spring and summer I researched the dismal recycling rate of compact fluorescent lights (CFLs) by Maine households. In Maine, it is illegal to dispose of used CFLs, mercury has been a dominant environmental issue in Maine for the past few decades, and there is a free collection system. According to Efficiency Maine, the agency responsible for subsidizing the sale of CFLs, and offers the free collection system, statewide they collect about 335 per month compared to selling 30,000 to 40,000. So, my research question was simple, why such a low recycling rate? Based on 520 responses to an online survey, only 23.5% households claimed they recycled, given social desirability bias the number is probably too high. And, because of response bias, the reported recycling rate is much lower if it was truly representative of the state. Regardless, 76.8% of the respondents stated that they knew CFLs contained mercury including many of those who disposed of CFLs. Moreover, historically, Maine has one of the most aggressive and comprehensive mercury control programs and has been a pioneer in e-waste recycling, thermostat bounties, mercury button cell bans, and now CFL recycling (Maine is the first state to pass an extended producer responsibility law for household CFLs). What does this all mean? Maine mass media, public officials, and NGOs have been very successful in communicating the environmental dangers of mercury, the state has had broad public support in aggressively limiting environmental mercury, and the public has supported taxpayer spending on mercury control. Yet, in spite of broad public support and knowledge, individuals have acted contrarily by throwing  mercury in the trash. It is especially significant because Maine has the highest incineration rate in the country and mercury’s primary route of concern is via the atmosphere. Is this a free rider problem?  Has communication focused too much on producer responsibility and has been ineffective with individual responsibility? Or, because of the perceived cleanliness and effectiveness of our recycling system, such as the single sort approach, do people mistakenly believe or want to believe that throwing CFLs in the trash is not bad. I do not know what the answers are, and they are, as often is the case, probably multi-factorial. But if anyone has any thoughts, please share. It does, however, suggest that communication must be more than merely educational but targeted toward a specific desirable action, a components of social marketing.


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2 Responses to When Effective Communication is Not Always Enough

  1. Mandy Park says:

    Dear Travis,

    This is Mandy Park in South Korea, I have interested in local-based participatory environmental movement. And my thesis for master was to find out the reason why local people do not involve in local environmental problem which has been issued by central government and NGOs. As interviewing and observing the residents over several years, there was not enough communication and analysis between the residents and governmental groups/NGOs. The outsiders -I mean governmental groups/NGOs-have targeted the citizens outside of the community to protect endangered flower. Even though, the outsiders spent big efforts, time, and money, they haven’t thought to see how the residents are looking or thinking about the protection of endangered flower in their village.

    For environmental communication, I think first thing is having question, what the problem we have! (not you have or they have, it should be ‘we’). Second see the targets’ behavior. Then one of the simple but effective ways to awake people to do environmental action is show them ‘do-and-result’. Help them to image what happen their simply throw CFLs action draws the negative result in our environment in a near and further future.

    Policy and environmental movement are sometimes too far from our daily life. Even I know my laziness as like throw CFLs with other trash in to burn it is very bad, but I cannot recognize how much this kind of my small action impacts to environment. If I get enough result which is from my laziness or enough knowledge on circulation of my action, I could control myself to do right things. So, I think “Think globally, act locally” is possible when there is specific and practical explanation and examples. How about share more specific information with the individuals in Maine regarding their daily treatment on CFLs?


  2. Jen Schneider says:

    Hi Travis,

    My Environmental Rhetoric and Media students and I have been talking about this same thing, because we have a “new” (if you can believe that) recyclying system at the university, and we’re trying to tackle the problem of contamination. Last year, we did an awareness campaign, and this year the university is trying different behavioral approaches (a recycling contest, person-to-person contact and reminders, etc). McKenzie-Mohr’s book Fostering Sustainable Behavior has been giving us good ideas. Clearly, you need an information campaign, willingness, AND some sort of strategic behavioral approach.

    I think the problem is that behavioral approaches (as opposed to just information-based ones) are more expensive to design and implement, and take more time, and are harder to sell. But neighbor-to-neighbor information campaigns might be one way to go about it.

    We need one of those “easy” buttons :).

    Colorado School of Mines

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