New Ways to Reach Non-Recyclers: an Extension of the Model of Reasoned Action to Recycling Behaviors

ABSTRACT - Looking at recycling from a decision perspective enhances our understanding of how people translate attitudes and social considerations into behavioral intentions. This paper examines the role of prior behavior, the effects of perceived effort, and the role of social norms in the individual decision to recycle. While most recycling studies look just at product disposition behaviors, this study defines recycling to include product purchase and reuse behaviors and finds that people do organize disposition, reuse, and purchase under the same umbrella of recycling activities. The results of empirical testing suggest that initial trial is an important predictor of repeat behavior. Perceived effort is also an important attitudinal component in the decision process. This suggests that promotions should be designed to minimize the amount of perceived effort that is involved in product disposition and purchase and to encourage initial trial. The success of appeals to community values and social expectations may depend on the strength of community recycling norms.


Debra J. Dahab, James W. Gentry, and Wanru Su (1995) ,"New Ways to Reach Non-Recyclers: an Extension of the Model of Reasoned Action to Recycling Behaviors", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 22, eds. Frank R. Kardes and Mita Sujan, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 251-256.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 22, 1995      Pages 251-256


Debra J. Dahab, University of Nebraska

James W. Gentry, University of Nebraska

Wanru Su, University of Nebraska

[The authors would like to thank Doug Curry and Yasser Dahab for assisting in the data collection for this study.]


Looking at recycling from a decision perspective enhances our understanding of how people translate attitudes and social considerations into behavioral intentions. This paper examines the role of prior behavior, the effects of perceived effort, and the role of social norms in the individual decision to recycle. While most recycling studies look just at product disposition behaviors, this study defines recycling to include product purchase and reuse behaviors and finds that people do organize disposition, reuse, and purchase under the same umbrella of recycling activities. The results of empirical testing suggest that initial trial is an important predictor of repeat behavior. Perceived effort is also an important attitudinal component in the decision process. This suggests that promotions should be designed to minimize the amount of perceived effort that is involved in product disposition and purchase and to encourage initial trial. The success of appeals to community values and social expectations may depend on the strength of community recycling norms.


As reducing, recycling, and reusing become important public policies with respect to the consumption and disposition of consumer goods, marketers have the opportunity to use consumer behavior concepts to explain differences in behavior and offer insights into program development. This paper investigates recycling as a deliberative process using the model of reasoned action (Fishbein and Azjen 1975) to explain how attitudes and subjective norms affect the intent to engage in recycling activities and whether the motivational component of attitudes and norms is sufficient to energize intentions. Bagozzi and Dabholkar (1994) are the first to apply the model of reasoned action to a recycling context. However, the approach in this article is unique in several respects. First, "recycling" in this study is defined not only as an act of product disposition but also as a purchase activity. The study recognizes that recycling must include the remanufacture and purchase of a product made from recycled materials for recycling to occur. "Completing the recycling loop" includes consumption and disposition and reconsumption of the same materials in remanufactured form. The scales used in this study incorporate this important definition to test whether people perceive recycling as disposition only or as the full circle of recycling activities including purchase decisions.

Second, this study treats perceived effort as an antecedent in the model of reasoned action and as a construct distinct from attitudes. Finally, we suggest that prior behavior is important in a recycling decision and discuss how recycling incentives can be structured to encourage initial trial which may lead to repeat behavior. This paper explores hypothesized effects of community norms on recycling behavior and suggests why normative pressures may be inconsistent across communities. We test hypotheses relating to differences in recycling intentions based on variations in attitudes and community norms, perceived effort and costs involved in recycling, and individual differences in action control. Implications for public policy and program development and promotions are discussed. Extended beyond recycling behavior, our findings contribute to the growing stream of work that enhances our understanding of the deliberative processes involved in arriving at behavioral intentions.


Distinguishing recyclers from non-recyclers on the basis of identifiable criteria has been the focus of psychologists, marketers, and environmental planners. However, as recycling behaviors diffuse throughout the population, it has become more useful to look at the individual decision making process to explain why some persons recycle and others do not, and what factors affect the recycling decision (Berger 1993; Jackson et al. 1992; Nelson 1993; Vining and Ebreo 1992). Viewing recycling within the context of decision making provides the opportunity to understand not only the specific behavior but to integrate and apply research from other studies of consumer behaviors to recycling and vice versa.

Subjective norms

The Fishbein and Azjen (1975) model of reasoned action, Ajzen's (1991) Theory of Planned Behavior, and Bagozzi and Warshaw's (1990) Theory of Trying hypothesize that behavior is a function of intentions which in turn are the result of a deliberative process that is affected by attitudes and social norms. The normative component of the model of reasoned action is the multiplicative result of the perceived social norm and the motivation to comply with the norm (Fishbein and Azjen 1975). Hopper and Nielsen (1991) examined the impact of a block leader program on social norms and recycling behaviors. While the relationship between behavior and norms is not clear in the Hopper and Nielson study since all groups showed distinct changes in behavior, the study does demonstrate that norms can be changed through persistent social contacts and through the perception that the individual is accountable to others for his or her actions. This may have important implications when the communication objective is to sustain behavioral changes rather than just to induce them.

Other writers have suggested that norms play a role in guiding recycling behavior (Jackson et al. 1992; Vining and Ebreo 1992). Dirksen and Gartrell (1993) compared the attitudes and recycling behaviors of individuals in two separate communities, one with a visible, highly publicized curbside recycling program and the other with minimal recycling opportunities. They found that persons with positive attitudes towards environmental concern will recycle if given the opportunity, but more importantly, their results also show that unconcerned individuals in the strong recycling community reported high levels of recycling. They conclude that "the social context alone was sufficient to produce the behavior" (p. 439). They suggest that "the highly visible, widespread, and socially desirable nature of the program meant that on a neighborhood basis, the norm for recycling was probably changed" (p. 440). As product disposition behaviors become more visible with the increased number of curbside recycling programs, one would expect the normative component of the recycling decision to become more important. Vining and Ebreo (1992) suggest that changing to a curbside program may account for the increase in reported social norms in their longitudinal community study. The literature then clearly suggests the first hypothesis for this study:

H1: Perceived social norms that support recycling will be positively related to the intent to recycle.

Attitudes and Individual Differences

The attitudinal component of the model of reasoned action is the multiplicative result of beliefs towards the behavior and the perceived effectiveness of engaging in the behavior. Support for the relationship between attitudes towards recycling and behavioral intentions has been mixed (Bagozzi and Dabholkar 1994; Balderjahn 1988; Kinnear, Thomas, and Taylor 1973; McCarty and Shrum 1993; Samdahl and Robertson 1989). The tenuous link between attitudes and intentions has led some researchers to examine the influence of other factors that may moderate the relationship. Berger and Corbin (1992) found that the level to which a person perceived his or her behavior to be effective in achieving the desired results moderated the relationship between attitudes and a variety of environmentally conscious consumer behaviors. Individual differences are also hypothesized to moderate the attitude-behavioral intention relationship in the reasoned action model. Fishbein and Azjen (1975) acknowledge that the relative importance of the normative and attitudinal components in the reasoned action model depends on individual characteristics.

Bagozzi, Baumgartner, and Yi (1992) note that:

the "theory says little about when favorable attitudes and subjective norms lead to intentions to act. Rather, the theory assumes that favorable attitudes and subjective norms inevitably lead to intentions. Self-regulatory processes constitute motivational mechanisms for energizing the linkages found in the theory of reasoned action " (p. 506).

They found that individuals who were action-oriented placed greater weight on attitudes in determining behavioral intentions relating to coupon use, while state-oriented individuals weighted subjective norms more in the behavioral intentions equation. Action-oriented individuals are more responsive to the personal rather than the social evaluation or consequences of the act. Differences in individual readiness to act, according to Bagozzi, Baumgartner, and Yi (1992), supply the motivation in the model of reasoned action. We suggest this explanation may be particularly useful in explaining recycling behaviors which the literature suggests may have both attitudinal and normative antecedents. The motivational component of recycling may also derive from the perceived effectiveness of the intended action (Pieters 1991). If the individual perceives that recycling will bring about the desired personal or social outcome, he or she will be more predisposed to act. In either case, action-oriented individuals are more secure in the belief that they control both the decision to act and the outcome of the action. State-oriented people, on the other hand, are more deliberative in their decisions and are, as a result, more attuned to the social normative consequences of their actions (Bagozzi, Baumgartner, and Yi 1992). Thus, while attitudes are hypothesized to be important in the recycling decision, individual differences in action orientation will moderate the relationship. Persons who are more state-oriented will be guided more by social norms in making their decisions regarding recycling. This leads to the following hypotheses:

H2: Positive attitudes will be positively related to the intent to recycle.

H3: Individual differences in action control will moderate the relationship between attitudes and intent to recycle and subjective norms and the intent to recycle as follows:

H3a: Action-oriented individuals will be guided more by attitudes than norms in arriving at behavioral intentions.

H3b: State-oriented individuals will be guided more by subjective norms than attitudes in arriving at behavioral intentions.

Perceived Effort and Its Relationship to Intent

Recycling is not without cost. In some communities individuals must make a special effort to take materials to drop-off sites. If recycling is voluntary, these costs are weighed against the benefits in the individual decision process. Bagozzi, Yi, and Baumgartner (1990) examined effort as a moderator of the relationship between attitudes, intent, and behavior in the reasoned action model. They found that when the behavior required substantial effort, intentions mediated the relationship between attitudes and behavior. However, when the effort required was low, the mediating role of intentions declined. This occurs because more deliberation is required as effort or perceived effort increases.

The effort required to recycle has been examined as part of the recycling decision process (Granzin and Olson 1991; Jackson et al. 1992; Pieters 1991). While perception of the effort required to engage in a behavior is the result of the positive or negative evaluation of a belief regarding an action, research has demonstrated that perceived effort is distinct from general attitudes toward recycling and is important in the recycling decision. This leads to the following hypothesis:

H4: The lower the perceived effort or cost to recycle, the greater the intent to recycle.

Prior Behavior

Bagozzi, Baumgartner, and Yi (1992) and Bagozzi and Dabholkar (1994) argue that while the theory of reasoned action views attitudes and norms as sufficient to predict intentions, research has demonstrated that prior behavior may be an informational input to the reasoned action decision or it may activate a previously stored intention, subject to arousal associated with the presence of certain cues. In the case of recycling, prior behavior may break down some of the barriers to recycling caused by an inflated perception of effort or it may represent overcoming that initial resistance to changing old disposition patterns. Bagozzi and Dabholkar (1994) found that prior behavior is more effective than attitudes in predicting recycling intentions. We suggest that prior behavior should be related not only to positive intent, but also to more positive attitudes and a lower perception of effort as follows:

H5: Self-reported prior recycling behavior will be a significant predictor of intent to recycle.



Respondents were 111 residents of a medium-sized midwestern community. Fifty-six percent of the subjects were female; 44% were male. The community has an extensive drop-off system maintained by the city for collection of recyclables; curbside pickup is available on a private fee-for-service basis from haulers serving selected areas. A quota sampling procedure was used to obtain a sample that represented the demographics of the community. The city was divided into four quadrants using census tract information, and neighborhoods were identified within the quadrants based on demographic characteristics. Subjects were recruited by going door to door in identified neighborhoods. In most cases, the survey was left with the resident and picked up later in the day. Approximately 50% of the households agreed to participate; refusals were relatively uncommon as not-at-homes constituted the majority of the non-responses. Of those agreeing to participate, 70% completed the questionnaire. Compared to the demographics of the community as a whole, the sample underrepresented persons in the 35-44 age category and overrepresented persons in the highest and lowest income categories.


New measures for recycling norms, attitudes, effort, intent, and prior behavior were developed for the study. The notion of recycling was expanded to include recovering product discards and depositing them in a collection program offered in the community, reusing them within the household, and purchasing products made from recycled materials. The measures of norm, attitude, and effort were five-point Likert scales with response choices ranging from "strongly agree" to "strongly disagree". "Recycling norm" in this study was defined as the extent to which an individual perceives an informal community rule that members ought to engage in recycling. The recycling norm scale consisted of nine items that asked if "people in this community" expect others to recycle specific materials. Sample items include "It seems that in this community a person is expected to recycle food containers made of steel or tin" and "Purchasing paper and paper products made from recycled materials is seen by people in my community as the appropriate thing to do." [In developing the scale for recycling norms, it was assumed that the word "community" would be interpreted as "persons who are important" to the respondent.] The attitude measure consisted of nine statements about the personal and social value and importance of recycling in general. Sample items include "Recycling helps make the world a better place to live," "It doesn't pay us to recycle" and "Recycling is something I think I should do." The effort scale included eight items representing attitudes regarding the convenience, time involved, and general utility of recycling such as "Recycling requires too much household space" and "Recycling takes too much time". The intent scale consisted of a listing of recycling activities and asked respondents to indicate for each activity whether it was something they are currently doing, something they definitely intend to do, something they may do, or something they probably will not do. Prior behavior was self reported with the question, "Have you ever at any time done the following with household wastes or for household purchases?" A yes or no response for each item was possible. Action control was measured using Kuhl's (1985) state/action orientation scale.

Two items were eliminated from the original norm, prior behavior, and intent scales because of apparent confusion about the context. When asked about behaviors concerning the recycling of motor oil some respondents interpreted the question to include recycling by a service station providing oil changes while others responded in a more personal context. Similarly respondents were confused about what activities constitute yard waste recycling. Some respondents reported that they leave clippings on the lawn and did not know how to respond to the query within the given parameters. A principal components analysis indicated that it was appropriate to view the remaining activities (minus yard waste and oil) as a single construct. This suggests that people do view recycling as all activities that "complete the loop." Similarly, the remaining scales all showed evidence of unidimensionality.

Item responses for each scale were summed to derive a single score for each subject for each scale with a higher score indicating a stronger norm, more favorable attitude, less perceived effort, stronger intentions, and more recycling experience. The results of the tests for inter-item reliability using Cronbach's alpha were .70 for the recycling norm, .94 for the effort, .88 for the intent, .63 for the prior behavior, and .79 for the state/action orientation scales.


All of the variables were tested as continuous variables using multiple regression analysis, including the state/action orientation scale as recommended by Bagozzi, Baumgartner, and Yi (1992). Hypotheses 1 through 5 were tested in moderated regression models that included the interactions between action control and attitudes, norms, and prior behavior. The predictor variables were mean centered (Cronbach 1987; Yi 1989) to reduce multicollinearity in analyzing main effects and interactions using regression analysis. The regression equations were modeled after those used by Bagozzi, Baumgartner, and Yi (1992) in their coupon study:

BI= SAO + Effort + Rnorm + Att + SAO x Rnorm

+ Att x SAO(1)

BI=SAO + Effort + Rnorm + Att + Prior + SAO

x Rnorm + Att x SAO + Prior x SAO(2)


BI is behavioral intention,

Att is attitude,

Rnorm is recycling norm,

SAO is action orientation,

Effort is perceived effort, and

Prior is prior recycling behavior.

The interaction terms treat action orientation as a moderator of the effects of attitude and norms on behavioral intentions. Hierarchical and stepwise models was also used; however, these techniques did not contribute beyond the results of the analysis of the moderated models shown in Table 1. Hypothesis 1 predicts that perceived social norms will be positively related to the intent to recycle. In the case of this community, the hypothesis was not supported. In both models recycling norms were not significant predictors of intent to engage in recycling behavior. Hypothesis 2 also was not supported in either model. Attitudes were not significantly related to intent to recycle.

Hypothesis 3 proposes that individual differences in action control will moderate the relationship between attitudes, subjective norms, and behavioral intentions. One would anticipate that as attitudes towards recycling became more positive and as action control increased, intent would increase. Thus, the interaction between action control and attitudes should be positive. Similarly, as the strength of the subjective norm increased, for persons scoring lower on the action control scale, intent would increase. This would result in a negative parameter for the SAO x Rnorm interaction. While the parameter for the attitude-action control interaction was in the right direction, the interaction was not significant for either model. The recycling norm-action control interaction was significant (b=.17, t=2.27, p<.05) for the model without prior behavior but the relationship was in a direction opposite to the one hypothesized.



Hypothesis 4 suggests less perceived effort/costs leads to greater intent to recycle. This hypothesis was supported in both models. Effort was a significant predictor of intent in the model without prior behavior (b=.60, t=6.24, p<.001) and was also significant in the model with prior behavior (b=.39, t=3.81 p<.001).

Hypothesis 5 predicts that prior behavior will be a significant predictor of intent. The R2 of the model with prior behavior increased to 0.68 from 0.60 in the model without prior behavior and the increase is significant (F=7.9, 8,78 df, p=.01). Thus, the addition of prior behavior to the model of reasoned action in this situation enhances the model's predictive value. In comparing the models with and without prior behavior as a predictor, it should be noted that action control was a significant predictor in the model without prior behavior (b=.17, t=2.37, p<.05). That is, persons who were more action-oriented were more likely to express positive recycling intentions. In the model with prior behavior, however, action control is no longer significant as a predictor (b=.10, t=1.48) while prior behavior was the primary predictor in the regression model (b=.37, t=4.27, p<.001). This suggests that there is an underlying overlap between prior behavior and action control which is confirmed by the significant correlation between SAO and Prior in Table 2 (r=.27, p=.01).


The results of this study show that, consistent with the findings of Bagozzi, Baumgartner, and Yi (1992), prior behavior enhances the predictive power of the model of reasoned action with regard to behavioral intentions. For individuals in certain communities where recycling norms are strong and where a sense of community is reinforced (Bagozzi 1992), prior behavior may provide the individual with social feedback that reinforces the community expectations of behavior. If norms develop by individual trial and community response, the positive consequences of prior behavior may serve to encourage future intent. Prior behavior may also provide the experience, or information, that lowers the perception of the effort required to engage in the behavior and improves attitudes toward the behavior (Bagozzi, Baumgartner, and Yi 1992). Our results show the perception of effort was strongly related to future intention to participate in all recycling activities (including product disposition, purchase, and reuse). The Bagozzi, Yi, and Baumgartner (1990) findings on the relationship between attitudes and effort may shed some light on the findings of this study. They demonstrate that perceived effort is a significant moderator of the attitude-intention relationship when the activity is perceived to require more effort. For reluctant non-recyclers who perceive recycling as a high effort activity, more deliberation may be necessary because perceived effort complicates the cost-benefit analysis. Attitudes in both models were not related to intentions. This may be explained by looking at the correlations between attitude, prior behavior, effort, and intent in Table 2. The correlations between all variable pairs are high; however in the models, effort and prior behavior account for more variation in behavioral intentions. Attitude may overlap with effort and prior behavior, and may move in the same direction, but attitudes alone do not account for a significant amount of variation in behavioral intentions. This may also explain the discrepancy between our results and the result of Bagozzi and Dabholkar (1994) regarding the role of attitudes in the recycling decisions. According to our results, attitudes may be consistently high, but the key element appears to be attitude-behavior consistency, which appears to be moderated by perceptions of effort.



In this community, subjective norms appeared to have little influence on behavioral intentions. Fishbein et al. (1992) demonstrate that differences in levels of community cohesiveness can affect norm strength and subsequent behavioral intentions. Recycling in this particular community is not a visible activity as it might be in a community with a curbside program. This alone could account for the low level of perceived recycling norm. None of the neighborhoods surveyed had strong neighborhood recycling programs. Therefore, the descriptive norm or what appeared to be the community behavioral standard might have been difficult to identify, and the motivation to comply with the norm may have been particularly weak. The low visibility nature of recycling efforts throughout this community also supports the post hoc finding that recycling norms do not significantly differ among distinct neighborhoods within the community. We do not suggest, however, that the role of the community should be ignored in program promotions. In communities where programs are visible and where a strong sense of community exists, either in a neighborhood or on a broader level, the literature suggests that appeals that emphasize recycling as a community contribution or collective endeavor might be successful. This may be true particularly for individuals who have not yet internalized those higher order goals that Bagozzi and Dabholkar (1994) identified as antecedents to a reasoned action decision. In fact, such community pressure for these individuals may be important in stimulating individual goals depending on the community context.

Differences in action control only moderated the relationship between attitudes and intentions when prior behavior was not included in the model. However, contrary to our hypothesis, in the context of recycling action-oriented individuals were more likely to report higher social norms and related behavioral intentions. Again, this finding may be the result of the characteristics of this particular community where recycling is not a highly visible activity. When recycling norms are not developed, action-oriented persons may be leaders or innovators in terms of identifying and demonstrating normative behavior. State-oriented persons, on the other hand, may not be guided by norms as predicted because the norms in this community were too difficult to identify. Attitudes in the context of this study, however, were easily ascertainable. Further, more action-oriented individuals did have stronger intentions to recycle, thus providing more support for the conclusion that inertia has to be overcome before people will participate in environmental efforts.

Future research should examine whether recycling norms differ among communities, whether differences in norms are related to the visibility of recycling behaviors, and whether these differences lead to differences in the role of norms in a reasoned action model. Moreover, future research should attempt to uncover how strong community norms evolve. Fully understanding the development and role of community norms offers the potential to design communications that recognize the normative component as part of a behavioral decision.

Attitudes play an important role in determining recycling intentions, but more important to communications strategists is the finding that perceived efforts outweigh general attitudes towards recycling and the environment in predicting behavioral intentions. Programs should be designed to minimize the perceived effort or costs required to recycle and strong incentives for initial trial are necessary. These could include discounts for initial pick-up of items or modest premiums to attract first time users to drop-off sites. Of course, the ensuing experience should be made as hassle-free as possible, through the consideration of such issues as convenience in selection of container types, cleanliness, and location of drop-offs and other customer service issues.

The role of marketing in recycling includes not only to understand how people make disposition decisions, but also to explore the relationship between disposition and purchase behaviors so people can be encouraged to complete the recycling loop. Our findings suggest that people do view both acquisition/consumption of recycled products and disposition of recyclables as recycling. This suggests that consumption and disposition decisions may be related. For some persons, buying a recycled product may be a decision that is impacted more by values, attitudes, and norms than by traditional price and product evaluations. Further research should examine the link between disposition and consumption decisionsCdo consumers recycle first and then become interested in purchases? How do costs and product evaluations fit into the purchase decisions? How do product promotions effect disposition behaviors? This paper integrates these two activities in a framework that offers the potential for understanding both consumption and disposition behaviors in terms of the model of reasoned action.


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Debra J. Dahab, University of Nebraska
James W. Gentry, University of Nebraska
Wanru Su, University of Nebraska


NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 22 | 1995

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