“I hear and I forget, I see and I remember, I do and I understand.” — Confucius, 450 BC 

In recent years, experiential learning has emerged as a methodology to pass on knowledge and encourage skill adoption. It’s a hands-on approach to education that empowers individuals to learn by doing and has exhibited promising results. If experiential learning is an effective way of instilling knowledge, can it help save recycling? 

This article explores the experiential learning process and its potential to enhance recycling behaviors, as well as some practical ways to incorporate experiential learning into recycling education and initiatives. 

What is Experiential Learning? 

Experiential learning is learning something by doing, reflecting, and applying the knowledge and skills in real life. The experiential learning process allows learners to explore, collaborate, and reflect on what they do to fully accumulate new skills and knowledge. Some common examples of experiential learning are internships, clinical education, student teaching, fieldwork, simulation, and community-based research.

The Psychology of Recycling Behaviors 

Studies show when it comes to recycling, people tend to get swayed easily, and small details often result in big behavioral changes. Something as small as the shape of a soda can has an effect on whether we recycle it.  

A study conducted by a team of psychologists revealed that people were significantly more likely to recycle when their name was spelled correctly on their cups. 48% of those who had their names spelled right recycled their cup as opposed to 26% who had no name on the cup and 24% of those who had their names misspelled. An author of the study, Jennifer Argo, said: 

“We are averse to trashing something that is tied to our identity, as it would be conceptually similar to trashing a part of the self, which makes people more likely to recycle.”  

In another study, Argo and her co-author Remi Trudel discovered that an object is more likely to get recycled if it’s in its original shape. For example, a crushed can is considered damaged and is more likely to end up in a trash bin. Additionally, a ripped sheet of paper or small bits of paper is more likely to end up in the trash than a large sheet, even if the quantity is more. Argo explains this: 

“When items become damaged, they differ from the ‘prototype’ or ideal version of that product, and as a result, they are perceived as being less useful. As consumers, we tend to equate things that are useless with garbage.”  

In a nutshell, human psychology and recycling behaviors are complicated but predictable. Once we know how perception impacts behavior, we can adjust education accordingly. 

Incorporating Experiential Learning into

Recycling Initiatives 

A report by the World Economic Forum showed that globally 25% of people do not recycle because they don’t know how to participate in recycling programs. This lack of knowledge is one of the most common barriers to recycling. Experiential learning programs can help people start recycling, and by doing, they will gain knowledge and confidence to continue the behavior. Here are a few simple ways individuals and facilities can incorporate experiential learning into their recycling initiatives. 

For Individuals 

Create interactive displays that explain the importance of recycling and show how to properly sort recyclables. 

Host hands-on workshops where participants get an opportunity to make DIY projects out of recycled materials or compost their own food waste. Local community centers are great places to conduct these activities.  

Organize recycling challenges that encourage participants to recycle more (or better). For example, a challenge to reduce waste output by a certain percentage. 

Support community projects that encourage sustainable waste practices, like community gardens, city composting programs, donation services, and charity organizations. 

For Facilities 

Organize activities to sort different types of materials via hands-on training programs or interactive workshops. Implementing a smart recycling bin like TrashBot can help eliminate recycling contamination and educate users about sorting. 

Conduct regular waste audits to identify areas where waste can be reduced, like cutting down on or reusing packaging. TrashBot can provide facilities with on-demand waste audits and analytics on their waste stream. 

Prioritize recycling education by providing employees and visitors with ways to learn about recycling and waste reduction. Hosting recycling competitions between different departments (or teams) can also encourage better recycling behaviors.

Experiential Learning Success Stories 

Experiential learning is not an entirely new concept. It’s currently being practiced in several companies, including the Port of Portland, Oregon, to improve recycling behaviors among its employees. The port’s sustainability program, PDX Green, has implemented initiatives to promote sustainable practices. A few examples include: 

  • Recycling tours to recycling facilities for interested employees where they see how recyclables are sorted and processed firsthand. 
  • An annual recycling Olympics where employees compete in games and challenges related to recycling and waste reduction.  
  • Green teams formed to promote sustainable recycling behaviors.  
  • Composting programs to reduce food waste at the port’s restaurants and cafes. 

To expedite recycling in the US, states like South Carolina are moving towards using experiential learning in recycling. The Market Development team at the S.C. Department of Commerce is partnering with the S.C. Office of Career Services to provide recycling industry-focused experiential learning to students in order to support the recycling industry. It was designed to help students gain hands-on experience in a professional workplace setting and encourage them to think outside the box. Initiatives like this are an excellent way to support the growing recycling industry and help people start a career in the sector. 

Leveraging Experiential Learning to Improve


Recycling is more than a choice. It’s a necessity and something that should become a part of our daily routine. While it seems simple, recycling can be difficult to achieve consistently. The rules and regulations vary widely, only certain materials can be recycled in specific forms, and recycling contamination still remains an issue.  

Experiential learning could be the key to recycling education for any individual. Proponents of experiential learning say that individuals are more motivated to learn when they have a personal stake in the subject. Learning by doing and reflecting on the doing is the best way to see and experience how your actions make an impact.  

On the other hand, sorting recyclables is about more than just recycling; it’s about practicing ways to reduce waste. Sorting our trash makes us wonder what we can reuse, repurpose, or put to better use. Alongside recycling education, experiential learning helps us appreciate that our actions make a difference.