Recycling Rates Improve When People Know What Items Will Become

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Public Domain. Unsplash/Javier Huedo

Jeans into insulation, plastic bottles into coats – details like this make people more inclined to use the blue bin.

When you throw something in the recycling bin, do you ever stop to think about what it could become? And when you do, does it make you more inclined to use that recycling bin, instead of lazily tossing an item in the trash? Several consumer psychologists designed a study around these questions, in an effort to determine whether or not explaining to people what their recyclables are transformed into would help boost recycling rates.

As you may already know, recycling rates are abysmal in the United States. An estimated 75 percent of U.S. packaging is recyclable, but only 30 percent actually gets put in the right place. (Of that, even less gets recycled, due to contamination, incorrect placement, low resale value, and, of course, limited facilities.)

The rhetoric around recycling tends to focus on guilt, wasted resources, how terrible a human you are for not doing more of it, and so on. This public messaging could also be driving the rise in aspirational recycling, or 'wish-cycling', when non-recyclable items get mixed in with recyclables in hopes that they'll be taken.

So, researchers from Pennsylvania State University, Boston College, and State University of New York got together to conduct some interesting experiments. As the authors describe in an article for The Conversation, they wanted to see "if getting people to think about the products made out of recycled material could motivate them to actually recycle more and waste less."

recycling signs

The Conversation/via

They started with a group of 111 college students, asked to doodle on scrap paper before watching one of three ads: "One was a generic public service message that showed paper going into recycling bins. The other two also depicted the paper either being transformed into new paper or a guitar." After completing a survey, the students were asked to dispose of the scrap paper when they left. Half of those who watched the general PSA recycled their papers, while the recycling rate jumped to 80 percent for those who'd seen the transformational ads.

After doing a few more lab experiments, the researchers headed into the real world. They compared Google ads that either urged people to recycle old blue jeans in general, or said they could be turned into housing insulation specifically. The description of a transformed product got more clicks than the general one.

At a tailgate party at Penn State, volunteers spoke with attendees about recycling, with half mentioning transformed products and half keeping it general. The location of the people they spoke with was tracked via a GPS-enabled mobile app, and they discovered the subject of the talks did have an effect:

"After the game, the recycling and trash bags that tailgaters left behind were weighed. Those who received a transformation message recycled over half of their waste, while those who did not recycled less than a fifth."

All this is to say that details matter. People want to know what treasures their trash can become, and when that's laid out clearly, they're more inclined to do it. Perhaps municipalities and recycling companies should redesign signs to depict the items being created. Retailers certainly know this, touting the number of plastic bottles contained in a particular shoe or bag or jacket, but it wouldn't hurt to have these reminders on blue bins, too.

Recycling is far from an ideal solution, as we've stated many times on TreeHugger, but it doesn't hurt to strive to improve its rates. The more material available to retailers and the greater the demand for recycled goods, the more innovation there is likely to be.