Consumers and Their Garbage a Framework, and Some Experiences From the Netherlands With Garbage Separation Programs

ABSTRACT - After describing five ways in which consumers can change their waste disposal patterns to act environmentally friendly, the consumer task in garbage separation programs is analysed. Next, the determinants of repeated correct task performance in a garbage separation program are outlined. The results of research performed in The Netherlands on the participation of consumers in garbage separation programs is presented. Implications for public policy and suggestions for further research are formulated.


Rik Pieters (1993) ,"Consumers and Their Garbage a Framework, and Some Experiences From the Netherlands With Garbage Separation Programs", in E - European Advances in Consumer Research Volume 1, eds. W. Fred Van Raaij and Gary J. Bamossy, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 541-546.

European Advances in Consumer Research Volume 1, 1993      Pages 541-546


Rik Pieters, Erasmus University and Nijenrode University, The Netherlands


After describing five ways in which consumers can change their waste disposal patterns to act environmentally friendly, the consumer task in garbage separation programs is analysed. Next, the determinants of repeated correct task performance in a garbage separation program are outlined. The results of research performed in The Netherlands on the participation of consumers in garbage separation programs is presented. Implications for public policy and suggestions for further research are formulated.


Recently, van der Laan and Nentjens (1992) compared 10 European countries with a similar per capita income, on 13 indicators of environmental quality, including per capita water usage, amounts of garbage, the number of cars per 100 inhabitants, imports of tropical woods and so forth. Their results show that The Netherlands is the dirty pig of Europe. Overall, it scored last (worst) on the environmental pressure per square kilometer, and second last on per capita environmental pressure. There is no country in Europe where more garbage per square kilometer is produced. Currently, over 7 billion kilograms of garbage are produced annually in The Netherlands, of which about 40% is landfilled. Given the large amounts of garbage, the high percentage that is landfilled, and the fact that The Netherlands has the highest number of inhabitants per square kilometer in Europe (close to 400, 50% more than Germany which is second), it is clear that most dutch consumers live close to ever-growing mountains of garbage.

Since the beginning of the seventies, garbage separation programs have been tested in The Netherlands, in an attempt to lower the amounts of garbage produced annually, among others. Design aspects of these programs and the participation of consumers in them are discussed. Firstly, the production and consumption cycle, and the options that consumers have to dispose of their garbage in environmentally friendly ways in the cycle are introduced.


Environmentally friendly consumption comprises all buying, using and disposing activities of consumers that have a less negative or more positive effect on the natural environment than substitutable activities, and 'non-consumption'. Substitutability refers to the choice between alternatives in a category. For instance paper bags instead of plastic bags may be bought, assuming that the former are better for the natural environment. Non-consumption occurs when consumers abstain from consumption in a category. For instance, instead of buying the most environmentally friendly car or freezer, both products may be abstained from for environmental reasons, a form of 'voluntary simplicity'. Here, the disposal of garbage in environmentally friendly ways is treated.

Figure 1 depicts the production and consumption cycle: the flow of materials in society from primary, raw materials through production and consumption to final disposal of residual materials. The cycle starts when raw materials are gained from the environment to manufacture products (top left of Figure 1). The products are distributed to households X and Y, that acquire, use, and dispose of them. After usage, products or their residuals are returned to the environment directly (litter) or indirectly after collection (landfilling garbage) and treatment (landfilling the cinder that remains after garbage incineration).

Consumers can dispose of products and their residuals in a environmentally friendly manner if disposal (a) facilitates the recycling of scarce resources and/or (b) hampers hazardous waste from polluting the environment, 'special treatment'. In recycling, new functions or new users for used products are found. In special treatment, hazardous waste is treated separately and differently from non-hazardous waste. Four recycling chains and one special treatment chain can be distinguished:

(1) Second use

(2) Second hand

(3) Second hand trade

(4) Resource recovery

(5) Special treatment

Second use takes place when a product is re-used in the household, either in its original function or in a different function. Consumers use empty food jars to store nails, beads or pins, old newspapers to lite a fire, leftovers from meals to feed pets. Second use is depicted in Figure 1 as an arrow from 'usage' to 'usage' (1) and from 'production' to 'production' (1). The latter indicates second use in industrial households.

Second hand use of products takes place when a product after disposal is given away or sold to another household, or when it is swopped for another product (Jacoby, Berning and Dietvorst, 1977). It is indicated in Figure 1 as an arrow from household X to household Y (2). The classified sections of newspapers and the bulletin boards in supermarkets are filled with attempts to buy, sell, swap, or give away used durable products, notably cars, clothing, homes, electrical appliances.

Second hand trade takes place when the ownership of or responsibility for the used products is first transferred to an intermediary before their distribution to new users. It is depicted in Figure 1 as an arrow from 'collection' to 'distribution' (3). In the first three recycling chains, the form and function of the product usually remain roughly the same. When, for instance, glass bottles are collected, cleaned, refilled and resold to consumers, the glass is used in its original form (bottle) and function (contain liquid). In the fourth recycling chain, the ingredients or characteristics of the product are used to manufacture new products.

Resource recovery takes place when the product or its parts, after disposal is collected, treated and then used as a secondary resource in the production of new products. It is depicted in Figure 1 as an arrow from 'treatment' to 'production' (4). For example, glass bottles may be collected, and used in the production of new glass, either in the form of bottles or as other products. Although it is only one of four general recycling chains, resource recovery is most closely identified with 'recycling'.

Special treatment of garbage is depicted in Figure 1 as an arrow from 'treatment' to 'residual materials' (5). Special treatment of hazardous waste may take place, e.g., by incinerating it under controlled conditions, while landfilling the nonhazardous waste.

In practice, the four recycling chains may partly overlap. For instance, selling one's (used) house through a realtor is a form of the second hand chain (2) that is close to the second hand trade chain(3).



Figure 1 builds on the taxonomy of consumer disposition behaviors developed by Jacoby, Berning and Dietvorst (1977), and extends Zikmund and Stanton's (1971) concept of recycling as a 'channels-of-distribution-problem'. It stresses the analogous routes that materials can take in the forward direction, from production to acquisition, and in the backward direction, from disposal to treatment. The similarity of production and treatment, distribution and collection, and acquisition and disposal is evident. The top-half of Figure 1 comprises the demand for secondary resources. The bottom-half comprises the supply-side. In resource recovery, supply and demand are reversed: consumers 'produce' separated garbage and producers 'consume' secondary resources.

To enable resource recovery and special treatment, the garbage has to be separated in two or more fractions: the fraction that receives a special treatment or that will be recycled, and the residual fraction that is treated in the traditional way. Most attempts at garbage separation take place by mechanical means on a central location (Alter, 1983, 1986; Whalley, 1985), by the consumers at home, or by some combination of the two. The latter two options are most common. In such garbage separation programs, consumers perform a specific task.


In a garbage separation program consumers are asked to (1) separate, (2) store and (3) remove their garbage according to particular rules or criteria set out. In each of the three phases of the consumer task specific alternatives are available.

The separation can be based on characteristics of the materials in the garbage: e.g., organic from anorganic, usable from nonusable, hazardous from nonhazardous waste. The separation can be based on components in the garbage: glass, paper, metals, and so on, from the residual waste. The separation can also be based on products or product forms in the garbage: newspapers from the residual waste, or glass bottles, or aluminum soda cans from the residuals. Next to the kind of separation, the number of 'fractions' to separate is relevant, e.g., two or five.

Storing the separated garbage can be done 'systemless' when no special receptacle is available. Garbage can be stored in plastic bags, cardboard boxes, plastic or metal garbage containers. Sometimes, plastic bags with different colors to designate certain garbage fractions, or multi-compartment garbage cans are used (Rauschenberger, 1981). In some programs a combination of storage systems is used, e.g., a plastic bag for one fraction, and a bin for another fraction.

After storage, some procedure is followed to remove the separated garbage from the premises. If the garbage is collected from the premises, the collection frequency is relevant, e.g., weekly, monthly or annually. If the consumers have to bring the separated garbage to a central location, the distance from the home is relevant.

Participation of consumers in a garbage separation program can be either voluntary or compulsory. At the start of a voluntary program, consumers decide whether or not to participate. In compulsory programs, consumers decide whether or not to follow the rules. These are all start decisions. During the program, specific decisions about components and items in the garbage are made, e.g., when to stop using products, where specific items belong, how and how long to store them: performance decisions. During the program, consumers may at some time or occasionally consider whether to continue participation or not: continuation decisions (Gollwitzer, 1990).

The complete consumer task in garbage separation programs is indicated in Table 1. The task is to start participation, to separate the garbage according to the rules, to store it in the appropriate storage systems, to remove it using the suggested procedures, and to continue participation.




Gollwitzer (1990) distinguishes two phases in goal attainment. In the goal setting phase, the desirability of attaining a particular goal, e.g., resource recovery, relative to the desirability of other goals, e.g., personal comfort, is central. In the goal setting phase an intention is formulated to start participation in garbage separation program or not. After the goal has been set, consumers move to the goal striving phase. Here, operations that are instrumental in goal attainment are performed, i.e., performance decisions are made. In Figure 2, a simple model of the determinants of consumer participation in a garbage separation program is presented. The model distinguishes the two phases in goal attainment, setting and striving.

In research on consumer participation in garbage separation programs, the antecedents and consequences of the intention to participate have been intensively studied. Intentions capture the motivational factors that impact on behavior (Ajzen, 1989; Bagozzi and Warshaw, 1990). An intention is an attempt, and since internal and external factors may interfere with the ability to perform a task, not every attempt is successful. Motivation, in the model, leads to task performance if ability to perform is present. Ability moderates the relationship between motivation and performance.

A relevant ability factor is the task knowledge of consumers. Task knowledge is knowledge about the specific means to attain a goal (Verhallen and Pieters, 1984). A person who intends to participate in a garbage separation program but does not know how, or who has an incorrect knowledge of the rules, will not participate properly. A second ability factor is habit (Bagozzi, 1982). In a garbage separation program existing garbage disposal patterns have to be broken, and new patterns have to be formed and maintained. Because of the force of habit consumers may forget the new behaviors, or may fall back into the old patterns because these are less costly to maintain.

The intention to perform a task or to attain a goal is based on the subjective expected utility of task performance or goal attainment. Usually, an overall measure of the subjective expected utility is created (Fishbein and Ajzen, 1975). Verhallen and Pieters (1984) argue that for diagnostic reasons, a distinction can be made between the costs and the benefits of behavior. Costs refer to the expected (before a program) or experienced (during a program) sacrifices involved in performing the task. These costs include the money, time, and physical and mental effort involved in performing the consumer task. Benefits refer to the expected or experienced positive consequences. The distinction between costs and benefits is indicated in Figure 2. During task performance, feedback information may affect the task knowledge of consuers, learning-by-doing, and the experienced costs and benefits of task performance. The two circles in the models indicate how characteristics of the garbage separation program impact on the motivation and ability of consumers. 'PC' in the top circle stands for 'production and consumption'.

The model in Figure 2 is simplified for heuristic reasons. In research on consumer participation in garbage separation programs, more elaborate and specific conceptual models are used to focus on specific aspects, like, e.g., the role of acceptance of responsibility or social norms.

Participation in a garbage separation program entails costs for the individual consumer and benefits for society at large (Vogel, 1982). Hence, participation in a garbage separation program involves a commons dilemma (Hardin, 1968) or a social trap (Platt, 1973). The benefits of the program accrue to all consumers (as members of society) irrespective of whether a particular consumer participated or not. A narrowly egoistic consumer would therefore free-ride. Do consumers free-ride in this situation?




The decision to start and continue participation in a garbage separation program is affected by the costs and benefits of the program. The consumer task affects the cost of participation, while the effects of the program in the production and consumption cycle influence the benefits. The effect of the costs and benefits and starting and continuing participation has been studied in several programs in The Netherlands. The relevant garbage separation programs are identified by the name of the main city where they were or are run.

Costs of participation

In Santpoord-Zuid, the separation rule and the storage systems led to too high costs. Consumers were asked to separate their garbage in four fractions, and store each of the fractions separately in a differently colored plastic garbage bag (white for paper, blue for textiles, red for plastic, and grey for the residual waste). Only 30% of the consumers agreed to participate, and the program was discontinued shortly after the start.

In Breda, Zevenbergen and Teteringen, consumers were asked to bring eight components in the garbage to eight differently colored neighborhood containers, located near shopping centers. Rather low participation rates for several components were observed. In a study on the recycling of office waste, Humphrey et al. (1977) found that the motivation of employees to participate was significantly lower when part of the waste had to be brought to a centrally located waste container.

In 's-Hertogenbosch, consumers were asked to separate paper, cardboard, tins, textiles, rags and plastics from the rest of the garbage, and to store this fraction in a large plastic container (240 liter). The residual garbage could be stored in the regular plastic garbage bag. Both fractions were collected weekly door-to-door. Before the start of the program, consumers had serious reservations about handling the large container (Pieters and Verhallen, 1986). Consumers expected that the container would take a lot of space, and that participation would demand considerable physical effort. The expected costs were significantly inversely related to the intention to participate. Six months after the start of the program, consumers were more positive about the storage system. Also, the association between these costs and the intention to participate was close to zero now. In the course of time, the perceived benefits of the garbage separation program ('... save landfill capacity') remained high, as their association with the intention to participate.

In Amerongen (Pieters, 1986), consumers were asked to separate their garbage in a wet and a dry fraction. The wet fraction comprised vegetable, fruit and garden waste. The dry fraction comprised the residual garbage. Consumers received two large containers (240 liter) on wheels to store the fractions, a grey one for the wet waste, and a green one for the dry waste. Both containers were collected fortnightly. Of the surveyed consumers, 27% (N=798) experienced 'considerable' to 'a lot of' bad smell from the container with the wet garbage, compared to 4% from the container with the dry garbage. When asked which storage system they preferred for the wet garbage, 21% of the consumers who experienced considerable to a lot of bad smell preferred the plastic bag over the container, compared to 6% of the consumers who experienced no or just a little bit of bad smell.

Benefits of participation

The perceived and 'experienced' benefits of garbage separation are affected by the consequences of garbage separation in the production and consumption cycle. In Groningen, consumers were asked to separate the garbage in two fractions and to store the fractions in differently colored plastic bags (yellow for paper, plastic, glass and tins, and blue for the residual garbage). The consumers were informed that after collection, a second separation of the garbage would be performed in a special plant. During the program, the separation plant ran into operating problems, which led to the landfilling of all the garbage. Upon reading in the newspapers that actual recycling of the separated garbage did not take place, large numbers of consumers discontinued participation in the program. The expected benefits for the environment did not accrue.


Incorrect or insufficient task knowledge may lead to suboptimal performance. In the city of Groningen, 76% of the consumers indicated before the start of the program, that they did not know how to separate all or most items in the garbage (Paffen et al., 1983). A few weeks after the start of the program, only 13% indicated this. Yet, the survey revealed that 58% of the consumers disposed of aerosols incorrectly a few weeks after the start of the program, 79% disposed of facial tissues and paper towels incorrectly, 15% disposed of paint incorrectly.

In Amersfoort and Woerden, the relationship between the perceived and actual task knowledge was studied (Pieters, 1989). Ninety percent of the consumers in Amersfoort (N=213) and 88% of the consumers in Woerden (N=312) indicated a few weeks after the start of the program, that they separated the garbage '.. completely according to the rules'. Consumers were also asked to indicate what they did with nine specific items that regularly appear in the garbage (vegetable waste, broken light bulb, aluminum foil, left over gravy and so forth). A measure of actual task knowledge was constructed by determining the number of items out of nine that consumers disposed incorrectly. A few weeks after the start of the program, consumers in Amersfoort disposed of, on the average, 33% of the garbage items incorrectly, compared to 12% in Woerden. However, the correlation between the perceived and the actual task knowledge was close to zero and nonsignificant in both cities. Although, the actual task knowledge increased significantly in both cities during the year, the nonsignificant correlation between the actual and perceived task knowledge remained.

A goal in garbage separation programs is to change traditional garbage disposal patterns and to maintain the new patterns (Figure 2). Bagozzi (1982) found in the context of blood donation that prior behavior had a significant influence on future behavior, independent of intention (motivation). The effect of prior behavior may be particularly strong if it is performed almost automatically after some trigger is encountered (Wittenbraker, Gibbs and Kahle, 1983). Such a situation may arise in garbage separation programs. Garbage is usually disposed of without much thinking; it is thrown away in a simple habitual pattern. When participating in garbage separation, the traditional habitual pattern has to be changed, and a new one has to be formed and maintained.

In Amersfoort and Woerden (Pieters, 1989), the actual performance of consumers was measured using garbage analyses, one year after the start of the program. The separated garbage of (170) selected households was analysed individually. The performance of consumers in the program was determined by calculating the percentage of the separated garbage that was actually separated correctly. Next, the extent to which the actual performance of consumers could be accounted for by motivational and ability factors was determined. Regression analyses showed that prior performance in the garbage separation program predicted performance about six months later.

In a program to recycle office waste, Humphrey et al. (1977) found that the quality of waste separation gradually decayed over time, although the motivation to participate remained very positive. They suggest that in the course of time, the uniqueness of waste separation wore off, and that old habits reappeared. Without realizing it, people fell back in old habits.


The role of information provision in the success of garbage separation programs has not been highlighted in the present paper. Yet, intensive information provision is paramount. Information has two main goals: (a) to motivate consumers to start and continue participation, and (b) to enable consumers to perform correctly. The first goal refers to the costs and benefits of participation. The second goal focuses on increasing the task knowledge and on forming new habits. Combining antecendent information (advertising, educational material, brochures), before the performance of the target behavior, with consequent information (feedback information), after the performance, seems most effective (Winett and Kagel, 1984). Research indicates that after the initial phase of enthusiasm, the motivation to participate may drop, and that old habits tend to reappear. Advertising and promotional tactics could be used to maintain the proper performance after the initial period. The analogy with stimulating brand loyalty is obvious: continued proper performance based on a positive motivation is aimed at. In particular in the first phases of the program, feedback information and inducements will be effective.

Environmental product labels, green seals, may help consumers to choose between alternatives with different environmental consequences, thus improving their ability to perform. In an early illustration, Henion (1972) found a shift in market share from laundry detergents with a high phosphate content to detergents with a low phosphate content when phosphate content was indicated on the packaging. Green seals could contain information that is relevant when buying products ('this product is made of recycled plastic') and when disposing of them ('this product belongs to the anorganic fraction'). The content of green seals can range from very specific, attribute-based information ('this is paper'), to very general, evaluation-based information ('this is recyclable'). After an analysis of human information processing limitations and characteristics, Bettman, Payne and Staelin (1987) make extensive suggestions for designing labelling systems. Olney and Bryce (1991) discuss issues and problems concerning the use of environmental product labels by manufacturers. In Germany a green seal (√∑ko-label) was introduced as long ago as 1977 (FEA, 1985). The green seal is awarded to products that have the same performance as alternatives in the product category (including safety) but that are more favourable or less detrimental to the environment, e.g., because they are made of recycled material. The system is voluntary: manufacturers apply for a green seal for one or more of their products. Research on the optimal design of green seals and on their effects, in particular their long term effects, on consumption would be welcomed. The effects of other measures, e.g., legislation and financial incentives (see, e.g., Hutton and Markley, 1991), on consumption are a relevant topic of research as well.

In the 1990's the disposal and recycling of waste will remain a key environmental issue. As the world population is growing, and as the annual amounts of garbage that consumers dispose of increase, more people produce more garbage. In The Netherlands, garbage separation and subsequent recycling and special treatment are not only necessary to re-use scarce resources and to prevent hazardous waste from polluting the environment, but also to prevent the country from becoming Mount Garbage.


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Rik Pieters, Erasmus University and Nijenrode University, The Netherlands


E - European Advances in Consumer Research Volume 1 | 1993

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