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Why We Don't Recycle: Psychology is to Blame

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Think of the last time you found a crumpled, discarded sheet of paper on the ground- did you recycle it, or throw it in the trash can? We would all like to say “recycle it,” but psychologists have found that in reality people do the opposite.

A recent psychology study found that people tend to throw away recyclable material- paper, plastic, aluminum- if the item is no longer whole. Basically, once a package is opened, or a can is dented, people will no longer see it as recyclable, even though the material properties remain the same.

In a study to understand how users perceive the way products look (i.e. recyclable or garbage), marketing professor Jennifer Argo, from the University of Alberta School of Business, found that object size does not matter, but how close the item is to its original form. One example is can crushing- many people crush aluminum cans to make room in their recycling bins, except when the can was pre-crushed, dented, or otherwise damaged. Then it will go in the trash.

“People see it as a damaged good that is not useful anymore in any way,” said Argo in a press release from the U of A. “What can you do with a crushed can? If the can came to you crushed and you had to make the decision our research shows that it’s going in the garbage.”

Argo and co-author Remi Trudel, from Boston University, say that a psychological hard-wire is to blame; a mental definition of garbage being something that is worthless or useless. However, consumers can also be influenced to see the “use” again.

To study this, Argo and Trudel gave study participants a piece of paper, asking them to do a creative writing assignment, then tell them what the paper is useful for. When they did that, 80 percent of the time the paper went into the recycling, said Argo.

“It was an automatic flip that it became useful to them again,” she said.

Despite national efforts to increase recycling across the nation, less than 35 percent of households in the U.S. recycle, and less than 10 percent of businesses. This study helps deduce the challenges to recycling: changing people’s perceptions and beliefs about product usefulness.

Besides increasing repetitive messaging  to encourage recycling, Argo said that producers should revamp their packaging to encourage recycling. Making it easier to preserve the original condition of the package after it has been opened will positively influence the tendency to recycle it, she explained.

For more information on what can and cannot be recycled, visit the website for Waste Management.

Photo credit: Shutterstock

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