When Recycling Doesn’t Reduce as Much Waste as You Think

A new study shows that people use more paper, cans, and bottles when they know they’ll be recycled.
(Illustration: Getty Images)
Oct 12, 2016· 2 MIN READ
Sean Eckhardt is TakePart's editorial fellow.

They’re called the three R’s of sustainability: reduce, reuse, and recycle. But according to a new study, people are more likely to focus on recycling than on reducing consumption—and there’s a significant disconnect between what can be recycled and what people throw in the blue bin.

The study, published in the January 2017 issue of the Journal of Marketing Research, found that people tend to use more of a material when they know that the waste is going to be recycled, according to Remi Trudel, a researcher on the study and a marketing professor at Boston University.

“We all experience this negative emotion if we knowingly waste something, but we also get a boost when we recycle something, knowing that we did something good,” Trudel said in an interview with TakePart.

The researchers had some people wrap gifts, while others took a math test with scratch paper. When participants were told the gift wrap or scratch paper would be recycled, they used two to three times more than the participants who were told the materials would be thrown away.

“The positive emotions of recycling outweigh the negative emotions from wasting,” Trudel said. “Because we use them all the time, the guilt in wasting is pretty low with everyday products like plastic cups and packaging.”

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The researchers also found that people are more likely to recycle objects that are intact than those that are ripped, dented, or broken. Two of the study’s experiments measured people’s habits when throwing things away. Some participants were asked to keep soda cans and pieces of paper intact, while others were asked to cut the paper and dent the cans under the guise of evaluating a type of scissors or for a branding study for soda companies. The participants were then asked to clean their stations and toss the materials in either a garbage can or a recycling bin.

Three-quarters of the waste generated in the United States is recyclable, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Despite that, only 30 percent gets recycled.

“As soon as you cut the paper up, it becomes trash, so you make this categorization error that is based on the notion of value,” Trudel said. “As you devalue something, it becomes less useful. Then you trash it because you attribute things that are useless to garbage.”

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Brand loyalty was also a factor. The study found that people were more likely to recycle the product they had an affinity for. Coca-Cola drinkers tended to recycle Coke cans and throw Pepsi cans into the garbage and vice versa. The researchers also looked at Starbucks cups and found that cups with customers’ names spelled correctly were more likely to be recycled than those with incorrect spellings. Choice of brands reflects self-identity, and people are reluctant to trash things that they identify with, according to Trudel, who compares the dynamic to his reluctance to trash his son’s art.

“Everyday products, even paper and cans, can reflect our identities,” Trudel said. “I have a little kid. He’d come home from school, and he’d give me his art, and I couldn’t get rid of it, because it was tied to me in some way. Surely I wasn’t going to throw it in the trash.”

“I think there are other things that we can do to nudge people, but educating is the hardest thing to do. But if you can influence more behavior, then it becomes habitual,” he said.