You’re less likely to recycle something if it looks like trash

Once you see old soda cans as potential earrings, recycling gets much easier.
Once you see old soda cans as potential earrings, recycling gets much easier.
Image: Reuters/Chor Sokunthea
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It turns out that you’re less likely to recycle a dented soda can than an un-dented one. A recent study by Boston University and University of Alberta researchers found that recycling behavior is affected by perception of an object, and that those that have been distorted from their original form are more likely to be considered “waste” and thrown away. In other words, if you get the sense that a soda can is too beaten up to function as a soda can any longer, you’ll probably throw it away instead of recycling it. While 75% of US waste is recyclable, only about 30% is actually recycled—so we’re clearly doing something wrong.

In the study (paywall), a series of experiments tested how people treated different kinds of recyclable waste. In one portion, researchers asked test subjects to cut paper (they were told they’d be evaluating scissor quality) into different sizes. They were then asked to dispose of the paper, and on the way out they passed a trash can and a recycling bin. Subjects were twice as likely to recycle paper that was larger than (or equal to) the size of standard printer paper. If it was noticeably smaller, more than half of participants threw the paper away instead.

Results were even more dramatic with soda cans; a dented soda pop was only recycled 20% of the time compared to 80% for cans without dents. And size mattered: When given soda cans that were half-size, even in good condition, participants were half as likely to recycle.

The bias, researcher Jennifer Argo said in a press release, is probably related to how we define garbage, as something worthless, which is also how we perceive small and shredded objects. But there was one thing that helped. “We gave one group of participants a small piece of paper and asked them to do a creative writing task and just tell us what this paper could be useful for,” Argo said. “As soon as they did that, 80% of the time it went into the recycling.” Once the paper was perceived as useful again, good habits returned.

Argo suggests that the solution might be in package redesign. If manufacturers make packages that can be opened and used without being destroyed or badly defaced, people should feel more inclined to recycle them. In theory, that means options like Amazon’s “Frustration-Free” packaging (where clamshells and shrink-wrap are ditched in favor of easy-to-open cardboard boxes) do even more than just cut down on packaging material; they might also be recycled more often than the shredded remains of other product containers. And if that fails, a sign reminding people that even the smallest scraps of recyclable material can find new uses might have some sway.