Top psychologist reveals how social behaviours and the power of influence can affect our recycling routines ahead of Recycle Week (23rd – 29th September)

  • A third of people (33%) say they feel more compelled to recycle when they know someone is watching
  • 35% follow the herd, saying they’re more likely to recycle after seeing someone else doing it
  • Top psychologist Dr Becky Spelman says behavioural psychology influences our decisions to recycle
  • Cardboard is #1 recyclable material in the UK and two-thirds of us recognise it to be sustainable
  • Research also shows sustainability influences our work and love lives; 23% believe those who recycle are more successful and 21% say they would not consider dating a non-recycler

The psychological power of influence is turning the nation into more sustainable citizens, says top behavioural psychologist, as new research reveals the positive link between social influence and sustainable recycling habits.

According to a study of 2,057 adults commissioned by cardboard campaign group, Beyond the Box, a third of people-pleasing Brits (33%) admit they are more likely to recycle if they know someone is watching them. And it appears the power of influence is having a positive effect, as waste-conscious Brits now claim to recycle more than half (54%) of their household waste.

Asked why social pressures contribute to their positive recycling routines, three in ten (28%) reluctant recyclers reveal they adopt the sustainable behaviour for fear of others’ judgement, while more than a third (35%) admit to following the herd and say they’re more likely to recycle after seeing someone else doing it.

It appears that these fears are well-founded. With sustainable packaging and recycling front of mind for many Brits, one in six (15%) ‘recycling vigilantes’ will serve a disapproving stare to someone they spot binning recyclable packaging in public, while 7% would tut loudly and 9% of the British public would go as far as confronting the offender.

Accredited Cognitive Behavioural Psychotherapist, Dr Becky Spelman who analysed the research, says: “Human beings are social animals, and like all social animals, we tend to want to do what others are doing. Often, people follow the herd, but it is also possible for a relatively small number of people to change group behaviour, if the people in question are perceived as having a high social status or other desirable traits.

“This is the philosophy behind the ‘broken windows’ approach to city management. When people see that a particular area is very run-down, they are much more likely to engage in littering, vandalism, or anti-social behaviour, because it’s implied that most people are behaving that way in the area. The same principle applies here. When people see that ‘everyone’ is recycling, this becomes established as the norm, and can be quickly adapted into their behaviour. However, if this is reinforcing positive behaviours, such as recycling packaging materials like cardboard, or cutting down on food waste, then this can only be a good thing.”

Andy Barnetson, spokesperson for Beyond the Box says: “In the current climate, it’s more important than ever to make sustainable decisions and prioritise recycling. Whether you’re swayed by the majority or influenced by the minority, this Recycle Week, we urge all Brits to ensure their cardboard boxes are flattened and put in the recycling bin so that the fibres used to create the boxes can go on to be used again and again. More than 80% of the cardboard we use in the UK is recycled, so it really is the most widely recycled type of packaging.”


The perks of recycling on the job

As well as substantial pressure from strangers contributing to our recycling routines, it appears positive recycling behaviours are being instilled by colleagues in the workplace. Almost a quarter (23%) of Brits believe those who recycle are more successful. Perhaps this explains why almost a third of workers (30%) admit they’re more likely to recycle if their boss is watching them.

It turns out accountants are most easily influenced and eager to impress at work – 60% reveal they’d be more sustainable under their boss’s watchful eye, whilst 45% of workers say they wouldn’t want to work for a company that does not supply proper recycling facilities.

Psychologist, Dr Becky Spelman says: “This is what is known as ‘ingratiation’, which means that people use behaviours that are generally perceived to be positive in order to appear more likable to their boss and their colleagues. That might not be the purest of motivations, but in terms of outcomes, it doesn’t matter. Whether the intention is to help save the planet, or to get in the boss’s good books, the end result – more recycling – is the same.”


The sustainable strain on relationships

While, at first glance, romance and recycling may not appear to go hand-in-hand, sustainable behaviours are often perceived as positive traits by potential partners.

Research from Beyond the Box shows a third of people (31%) believe those who recycle are more intelligent, while 32% of female respondents admit they perceive people who recycle to be kinder.

On the other hand, a number of us say unsustainable habits could be a romantic deal-breaker. One in five (21%) of people say they would not consider dating a non-recycler.

Dr Becky Spelman, says: “Most of us, when we are looking for a partner, hope to find someone who shows behavioural traits that we consider positive. Life is short, so it doesn’t make sense to invest a lot of time and emotional energy in someone whose behaviours are negative. Recycling is a good behavioural ‘weathervane’. When someone makes the effort to do the right thing and go out of their way to be sustainable – by refusing the plastic straw when they go out for a drink or recycling their cardboard online order boxes – they are displaying the positive behavioural traits that indicate that they may well be a good bet for a long-term relationship.”


Recycling is a bin-convenience for a certain few Meanwhile around two thirds of people (65%) confess to wrongly putting something recyclable, such as cardboard, in the general waste on purpose, even though if they know it could be recycled. Though it appears conscience plays its part, as more than 40% say this makes them feel guilty, 20% say they feel ashamed, while 12% say they’re unphased by their aloof actions.

The research also reveals that one in three people (35%) say they’d recycle more if they had constant reminders, 44% say they’d be compelled to recycle if there were fiscal fines, whilst a stubborn 23% say they would not consider changing their behaviour and absolutely nothing could encourage them to recycle more.

– Ends – About Beyond the Box

Bringing together experts from leading UK packaging companies, Beyond the Box, launched by the Confederation of Paper Industries, helps Britons learn more about the nation’s sustainable packaging choice: Cardboard. Visit for more information.

For more information, including spokesperson requests, please contact Rob Waldon or Sophie Menzies at Richmond & Towers Communications: / / 020 7388 7421

People-pleasing Recyclers

Rank Region The Britons most likely to recycle when someone’s watching(%)
1 Cardiff 39.02
2 London 37.68
3 Manchester 35.43
4 Southampton 33.72
5 Newcastle 33.34
6 Sheffiled 33.34
7 Norwich 32.61
8 Glasgow 31.81
9 Bristol 30.85
10 Brighton 30.62
11 Liverpool 29.48
12 Edinburgh 29.33
13 Nottingham 26.55
14 Leeds 22.81
15 Plymouth 14.76

Britain’s biggest ‘Recycling Vigilantes  The Britons most likely to react to others’ sub-standard recycling practices (i.e. Binning something recyclable) Includes: giving a disapproving look, confrontation, tutting, taking it out of the bin and put it in the correct recycling

Rank Region (%)
1 Edinburgh 70.67
2 Belfast 66.13
3 London 65.44
4 Liverpool 62.82
5 Cardiff 59.76
6 Norwich 55.44
7 Newcastle 54.33
8 Manchester 54.29
9 Birmingham 50.27
10 Glasgow 50.01
11 Leeds 50.00
12 Bristol 48.94
13 Nottingham 47.78
14 Brighton 42.85
15 Plymouth 40.99

Regional ‘Recycling Romantics’

Those most attracted to someone who recycles

Rank Region (%)
1 London 36.21
2 Norwich 33.69
3 Leeds 32.45
4 Belfast 32.26
5 Manchester 31.43
6 Birmingham 30.27
7 Edinburgh 29.34
8 Cardiff 28.05
9 Newcastle 27.16
10 Liverpool 26.93
11 Bristol 25.53
12 Plymouth 22.95
13 Nottingham 22.12
14 Glasgow 21.59
15 Brighton 20.40