A few months ago, on my way back up the driveway from wheeling out the blue recycling bins to the curb, the question occurred to me, “What does it mean to be a green consumer these days?” Doesn’t nearly everyone recycle aluminum, plastic, glass, and paper? I also thought about my county’s about-to-be-implemented five cent plastic and paper bag tax and the impact that would have on my behavior and that of my fellow county residents. This raised the question, who is most responsible for protecting the environment—corporations, the government, or perhaps—me?
Fortunately, I was able to help get some answers by leveraging the resources at WB&A Market Research. We surveyed consumers in the Baltimore and Washington, DC markets on their green attitudes and behaviors across a range of topics. I shared the findings of the study and explored the implications in my January 11 webinar. Let me highlight the findings that should be of interest to you.
Let’s start with recycling. We found that 69% of the region’s consumers always recycle “basic” items, such as paper, glass, aluminum, and/or plastic. A quick history of recycling in the U.S. reveals that recycling started in the early 70’s with the first plant constructed outside of Philadelphia and the first laws mandating recycling in Woodbury, NJ. According to the EPA, each of us in the U.S. produces 4.4 lbs. of trash per day, or collectively, an amazing 250 million tons of trash annually. Fortunately, we do recycle 1.5 lbs. of this trash per person or 85 million tons collectively is recycled or composted. How are we doing recycling items beyond paper, glass, aluminum and plastic? A total of 37% of consumers always recycle items like batteries, ink cartridges, motor oil, computers, and/or cell phones.
It turns out that electronic/e-waste is the fastest growing category of waste, which is not surprising given the proliferation of cell phones, computers, and other electronics. There has been an increasingly quick turnover for these products, which ultimately results in the disposal of old or obsolete products. Why the lower recycling rates? I’d say it takes more effort to recycle these items depending on where you live. I’ve seen some studies showing that barely half of consumers even know where to take their used electronics. Many states, including Maryland, have taken action by requiring certain electronic manufacturers to pay an annual fee to fund local e-waste recycling programs.
How are we doing in reducing household energy use? Our study showed that 32% of consumers always find ways to reduce their household energy use. These percentages were higher among those who identified themselves as “liberals”. Not long ago, you could walk into Home Depot or Lowe’s and have trouble finding compact fluorescent light bulbs. Now, LED bulbs are starting to catch on and it’s becoming much harder to find incandescent bulbs, which are being phased out in the U.S.
Are we using reusable shopping bags? 29% of consumers always use reusable shopping bags. This is much higher in the District of Columbia with 47% of consumers saying they always use these bags. This could be due to the District’s tax on paper/plastic bags. It turns out that 5% of plastic bags have been recycled nationally and they represent the largest source of ocean pollution. The bags take 1,000 years to decompose. The issue has begun to reach the radar of local jurisdictions. Beyond DC, Montgomery County has a bag tax and Prince George’s County is considering bag tax legislation.
Let’s shift gears and talk about purchasing behavior. Consumers were asked what they would do if they had a choice between purchasing a product that is environmentally friendly vs. a less expensive product. 44% said they are likely to purchase the less expensive product, while 50% said they are more likely to purchase the environmentally friendly product. Consumers in the Washington market (54%), particularly in the District of Columbia (64%), are more likely to choose the environmentally friendly product over a less expensive one. Let me add that sometimes it’s hard to evaluate a product that is environmentally friendly. It could be anything from the packaging, processing, supply chain, natural/ingredients, and/or the sustainability that defines a product to be environmentally friendly.
When asked how they personally feel about being environmentally friendly in making decisions about products and services,
- 20% of consumers said they make a strong effort to be environmentally friendly, while
- 45% said they make some effort,
- 24% keep the environment in mind when making decisions, and
- 10% said being environmentally friendly is not a factor when making decisions.
Back to one of my initial “on the driveway” questions. Who is most responsible for protecting the environment? Our study showed that 26% of consumers feel that local, state, and/or the national government is the most responsible, 23% think individuals are the most responsible, 12% think corporations and/or organizations are the most responsible. The largest proportion, 38%, think that all are equally responsible for protecting the environment.
When asked how they personally feel about corporations and the impact they have on the environment, 58% of consumers said it is a corporation’s responsibility to make a strong effort to be environmentally friendly. 19% said corporations should make some effort. 20% said corporations should keep the environment in mind when making decisions about how to run their operations. Only 1% said corporations have no responsibility for their impact on the environment.
Finally, as a professional researcher, I would be remiss if I did not summarize our methodology. The study was fielded in the Baltimore Metropolitan Statistical Area (MSA) in October 2011 and the Washington, DC MSA in November 2011. It is part of WB&A Market Research’s established MarkeTrak® study of 300 adults in each market, including a geographic sample representative of each market. Telephone interviews are supplemented with an online study of 100 consumers per market. Responses were analyzed across a range of demographic characteristics including age, sex, household income, education, marital status, race, county/area of residence, presence of children in household, frequency of Internet use, and employment.
So, there you have it—the green consumer in the Baltimore and DC markets. I invite you to visit the WB&A website, where you can find a link to the full report. You can learn why consumers are living a greener lifestyle and what their expectations are for the future. Hopefully, I’ve given you a picture of some key attitudes and behaviors. I’m looking forward to posing the same questions to the Baltimore and DC area at the one year mark, so we can begin to analyze the trends. Perhaps next year when I roll out the recycling bins to the curb, not only will the Baltimore/DC measure on paper, glass, aluminum and/or plastic recycling be close to 80%, the use of reusable shopping bags will be closer to 50%. I don’t know about my fellow county residents, but that five cent bag tax sure got my attention!
About the author
Steve has been President of WB&A Market Research since 1997. Previously, he served with national research firms, Yankelovich Partners and Opinion Research Corporation and directed market research projects for Fortune 1000 clients at Snyder Communications. Steve has expertise in conducting large-scale, quantitative projects that involve advanced statistical analyses. Steve is also a professional focus group moderator and was among the first to be certified at the CEO/Expert level by the Marketing Research Association’s Professional Researcher Certification program.