Do You Have a Recycling Bias?

Last Updated:
Mon, 2017-01-16 14:24

Around the world, more than two billion tons of trash is generated each year, with the United States throwing away more than any other country. Recent statistics from the EPA show that of the millions of tons of trash produced by Americans each year, only about 35% actually gets recycled. Further research by the EPA estimated that paper, plastic, and metals made up almost half of the waste generated in 2011. So why are recyclable products ending up in the trash?

According to a study in the Journal of Consumer Research that examined recycling habits, it seems certain biases embedded in our subconscious may be partially to blame.

recycled box and canAuthors Remi Trudel (Boston University) and Jennifer Argo (University of Alberta) conducted experiments and found that consumers tended to evaluate a product’s usefulness when determining whether or not it was recyclable. The more “distorted” from its original shape the product became during use or consumption, the less likely it was to be recycled. For example, whole pieces of paper tended to get recycled while small bits or crumpled sheets of paper were thrown in the trash. Crushed or dented soda cans or bottles were less likely to be recycled than a container that was in tact.

Trudel and Argo developed a theory to explain this phenomenon, based on the fact that the perceived usefulness of a product impacts our perception of its recyclability. "When a product is sufficiently distorted or changed in size or form, consumers perceive it as less useful," Trudel says. "And when they perceive it as less useful, they're more likely to throw it in the garbage, as opposed to recycle it." Essentially, there is an unconscious rule of thumb at work that distinguishes between useful things going in the recycle bin and things that appear useless going in the trash.

Understanding why consumers throw recyclable products into the trash could help communities, companies, and policy makers find creative ways to encourage improved recycling efforts. Making consumers aware of the bias and providing education around the economic and environmental costs associated with cleaning up trash play a critical role in the effort to change behaviors.

If you take one thing away from Trudel and Argo’s research, remember that changing a product’s shape or form does not affect its recyclability. What will you do with that crumpled soda can and those tattered bits of paper? Don’t let the useful vs. useless bias corrupt your recycling choices!

By Amy Malloy



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