Research Summary

The garbage gospel: Using the theory of planned behavior to explain the role of religious institutions in affecting pro-environmental behavior among ethnic minorities

Faith-Based Organizations Can Encourage Increased Recycling Among Minority Groups

The Journal of Environmental Education

As urban populations increase, recycling is critical to reduce the amount of household trash that ends up in the ocean or dwindling landfill space. In parts of Ontario, Canada, recycling rates have plateaued and even declined. The authors believe that the reason for this trend is that demographics in Ontario are shifting to include more minority residents, who are less likely to recycle according to prior research. Ontario municipalities have been running promotion and education campaigns regarding recycling, but they do not engage minority groups as successfully. Prior studies have shown that municipal recycling campaigns are often too complex or unfamiliar for ethnic minorities or first-generation immigrants to easily implement. Relaying messages about recycling through religious organizations may be more successful because they can deliver messages in the native language of the congregants, trust already exists in faith leaders, and certain communities have high attendance rates to faith-based organizations. This study investigated whether messaging through religious organizations to improve recycling rates among ethnic minority groups.

This study relies on the Theory of Planned Behavior. This theory relates beliefs and behaviors by stating that the following determine someone’s intentions and behaviors: attitudes, beliefs about expectations that others hold regarding a behavior (subjective norm), and a person’s belief about the difficulty of performing a behavior (perceived behavioral control). Within the scope of this study, attitudes referred to participant attitudes about recycling. Subjective norm mans that whether a person believes that those around them are recycling and others expect that person to recycle, too. Finally, perceived behavioral control, in this study, takes the form of whether participants found that it would be challenging to recycle and to learn how to properly recycle.

This research took place in three regions of Ontario, Canada, namely Toronto, Peel, and York. Twelve religious organizations participated, each one representing a minority group and/or religion, such as Vietnamese Buddhist or Indian Sikh. Groups were selected based on geography, and 57% of the groups contacted participated. The promotion and educational materials involved “sermon-style” speeches delivered by the leaders of the community and posters. The speeches were broad and about the social and environmental effects of recycling, with appeals to encourage recycling, whereas the posters were more technical about how and where to recycle. The materials were posted both in English and in the language of the congregation. To gather data, the researcher sent out surveys before the program and after the program. The surveys asked about prior recycling experience, current environmental behavior, attitudes, beliefs about social and moral expectations to recycle (subjective norm), situational factors, perceived behavioral control (belief about the difficulty to perform a behavior), and awareness/knowledge about the outcomes and consequences of recycling. The first survey had 303 respondents, and 332 respondents completed the second survey. A total 169 participants filled out both surveys. Participants were overrepresented from South Asian and Asian communities compared to their representation in the overall population and underrepresented from African and Caribbean communities.

The results indicated that religious organizations were highly effective at communicating the importance of recycling to participants. After the program, participants showed significant increases the 3 main factors of attitudes, subjective norms, and perceived behavioral control. Even the variables measured that were affected primarily by the posters (which were not changed significantly from the normal municipal posters) showed increases, including awareness on how to recycle and perceived convenience of recycling. Respondents indicated an increase in positive attitudes towards recycling, perceived behavioral control, and the belief that recycling is morally good.

The recycling program had a large impact on participants’ subjective norms, or the belief that their community recycles and expects them to recycle. In other words, participants increasingly felt that their community expected them to recycle and that the community valued recycling. In addition, over 50% of participants indicated an intention to recycle after the program, which was up from under 20%.

The author acknowledges that his sample was not completely representative of the demographics of the population and that the data was self-reported. These factors may cause bias in the data. Similar programs conducted in different locations and other communities may not see the same results.

The researcher recommends that municipal waste managers expand educational campaigns around recycling to include faith-based organizations. Municipalities can support these organizations by providing key messages, however they should allow the community and cultural organizations the flexibility to develop the materials for their constituents. Given that subjective norm has such a large impact on attitudes and behaviors regarding recycling, the campaigns should emphasize the connection between responsibilities to family and community with recycling.

The Bottom Line

Despite prevalent pro-recycling campaigns, recycling rates are often lowest among ethnic minorities. This study in Ontario, Canada, illustrated the importance of using embedded institutions in ethnic minority communities, such as faith-based organizations, to educate their constituents and promote recycling. Even though the programming remained very similar, working with faith-based organizations helped the messaging become more accessible and relevant. After the programming, participants reported higher rates of recycling, greater importance and knowledge on recycling, and a sense that their friends, family, and communities recycle and expect them to recycle. The study recommends that municipalities think creatively about how to educate communities and to work with community leaders to develop culturally relevant materials.