Challenges to recycling in Rural and Northern Communities

As noted in section 6.2, there exist numerous challenges to recycling in Ontario’s northern and rural communities – both for municipalities and households. This section explores these challenges in detail, breaking down the infrastructural, operational and behavioral impediments to recycling in these areas.

Barriers to recycling: Households


Households in Ontario’s northern and rural communities, on average, have much lower levels of participation in recycling activity when compared to households in urban areas (Stewardship Ontario, 2013).  The general consensus in the literature (see Evison and Read, 2001, Mcdonald et al. 1988 and Oskamp et al. 1991), is that lower levels of recycling participation are strongly correlated with perceived levels of convenience. In Ontario, many of the municipalities in northern and rural groups are serviced by depot/bring systems. In a depot/bring system, households are required to collect and transport recyclable material to designated drop off points. In certain instances, households are required to source separate recyclables into their designated material categories (i.e. paper, plastics, metals and glass) before depositing material at a drop off point. While depot/bring systems have been successful in certain European markets (Pro Europe, 2014), in Ontario, municipalities which require residents to drop off material have recycling rates, on average, 21% lower than those with curbside collection systems (Waste Diversion Ontario, 2014). As shown in the case study of pay as you throw systems (see Chapter 5, section 3), households find source separating recyclables to be inconvenient. The effort expended in sorting, storing and setting out recyclables is sufficient to deter participation. When the additional effort of transporting recyclables to a drop off point is imposed on households, they are less inclined to participate. This result is consistent with our understanding of the predictors of environmental behavior as described by Azjen (see chapter 2). If participation in an environmental behavior is moderated by perceived levels of convenience, then the less convenient the activity, the less people are likely to participate. This problem is particularly acute in Ontario’s northern communities, where municipalities are often serviced by fewer drop off points. Residents are required to transport material greater distances, further exacerbating the inconvenience of recycling.

Social Norms/Peer Pressure

Household participation in recycling programs in Ontario’s rural and northern regions are also impaired by a lack of “peer enforcement”. How social norms affect household recycling behavior is not as well understood as other lines of recycling research. The general understanding is that households will be more inclined to recycle if they think their neighbors/friends/family will judge them (either positively or negatively) for participating in a pro-social activity such as recycling. Studies by Nigbur et al. (2010) and Pelletier et al. (1998) find evidence to suggest that household recycling is positively correlated with normative beliefs (in areas where recycling is viewed favorably, peer enforcement is shown to positively influence recycling rates). Results from Chapter 5, section 3 lend further credence to these findings, as peer pressure and normative beliefs/behavior were listed as contributing factors to household recycling. However, in Ontario’s rural and northern communities, peer enforcement/pressure diminishes due to low population densities and distance between households (it is more difficult for households to determine whether their neighbors are recycling, as households are often kilometers apart). Furthermore, in communities with depot/bring systems, it is virtually impossible to gauge which households are participating in recycling programs. There is no mechanism in place to keep track of who is bringing what to depots/transfer stations. In many ways, there is an “out of sight, out of mind” mentality to recycling in rural and northern regions. Unless households see others actively participating in municipal recycling programs, they are less inclined to do so themselves. This is not necessarily a conscious decision on the part of households, but may simply be attributed to a lack of behavioral reinforcement. Until a recycling behavior becomes habitual through repetition and/or enforcement, participation will remain a function of attitude attachments, social norms/expectations and perceived levels of convenience/self-efficacy (as shown in the TPB model, Azjen (1985)).

Municipal barriers

Cost and Funding

One of the foremost challenges facing municipal waste managers in Ontario’s rural and northern communities is a lack of funding being allocated to recycling services. On average, rural and northern municipalities spend 58% less on Blue Box program costs than those in urban regions (when expressed on a per household basis) (Waste Diversion Ontario, 2014). This can be, in part, attributed to two factors: 1) Smaller populations mean a lower tax base, resulting in lower revenue streams for municipalities, and 2) As noted in Chapter 5’s case study of Ontario’s municipal incentivization model, many northern/rural municipalities cross subsidize larger “better” performing municipalities (they transfer a portion of their funding to municipalities with higher recycling rates). The net result is that northern/rural municipalities often face budgetary constraints when managing and operating household recycling programs (a sentiment expressed by municipal stakeholders during semi-structured interviews).  While there is an argument to be made that these municipalities require fewer resources as they are servicing a much smaller number of households, northern/rural communities often face higher material management costs when managing an equivalent tonne of recyclables (when compared to urban municipalities).