In an earlier column (“Naughty or Nice?, ” Dec. 2012) I noted that human behavior was one of the most important, and also the most poorly understood, elements of recycling. A recent study published in the Journal of Consumer Psychology by researchers at the University of California-Irvine and Tsinghua University (China) demonstrates how human behavior can lead to increased consumption when the option to recycle is available.
The study consisted of two experiments. The first involved a simulated office where subjects were asked to evaluate a pair of scissors by cutting shapes from paper. They were given an ample supply of paper (about 200 sheets). One group was given both a trash bin and a recycling bin while the second group only had a trash bin. The group with the ability to recycle used about 82 percent more paper per person compared to the group that could not recycle.
The second experiment was done in a men’s bathroom where paper towel usage was monitored over a 30-day period. During the first 15 days, no recycling option was given and paper towels were disposed of in typical waste receptacles. During the second 15-day period, a large recycling bin was placed near the sinks with a sign indicating paper towels would be recycled. In the second scenario, paper towel usage was 17 percent higher. Not as profound a result as the first experiment, but still statistically significant.
While these results are interesting and the study is one of the first to directly correlate behavior to the choice to recycle specific waste components, they should also be taken in context. First, the results do not suggest that this trend holds for all recyclables in all settings. In fact, the researchers note that the observations made apply only to recyclables where consumers incur no cost to use additional materials. Paper towels and, to a lesser extent, office paper, are unique as recyclables due to their being essentially free to the public. All other consumables with a recyclable component must either be purchased (e. g., soda cans/bottles, groceries) or are provided to us with little control over how much we receive (e. g., junk mail). To put this in context, of the almost 250 million tons of U. S. waste generated in 2010 about 1.4 percent and 2.1 percent consisted of tissue/paper towels and office paper, respectively. We can reasonably assume that only a fraction of this 3.5 percent consists of “free” materials.
Ongoing EREF research found that approximately 75 percent of MSW can be recovered via recycling or composting. While the office paper/paper towel study may be indicative of broader elements of human behavior as it applies to recycling, its second limitation is that it clearly doesn’t translate to behavior in settings where the vast majority of recycling occurs. In commercial settings, for example, the ability to recycle is often based on decisions by companies, not individuals. On the residential side it’s likely that many choices to consume more or less groceries or other consumable products aren’t based on the ability to recycle but instead on factors such as typical consumptive habits and the recyclability of the consumable items.
Typical consumptive habits of goods over time impact how much recycling is really possible for a individual or family. In other words, we buy two bottles of soda each week because we enjoy soda, not because we bought one more bottle than needed because we know we can recycle them. Conversely, we may not buy three bottles of soda because we can’t afford to, or don’t want to develop diabetes, rather than a desire to generate less waste. Real-world consumptive habits are complex and involve many more factors than the ability to recycle.
Recyclability also plays a factor. We can only recycle items that are actually recyclable. This is both a factor of consumer choice (i. e., we can choose to buy items that are more recyclable or have less packaging) and the product itself (i. e. the manufacturer can make a product that is more recyclable or has less packaging or material). However, most of us are creatures of habit and will buy what we like or need and only then consider waste reduction options, if at all.
This study illustrates that more research is needed when it comes to human behavior in relation to recycling, which will yield enhanced waste reduction and recycling strategies.