Why are we so bad at recycling? The average American generates 4.43 pounds of garbage a day, but only recycles or composts 34% of that waste. In places where garbage is especially visible and competition for elbow room fierce, you might think that the recycling rate would be higher—still, cities like New York and Boston lag far behind the national average.
Some researchers believe that the discrepancy has to do with a collective confusion over what goes into which bin and why. Others have hypothesized that some personality types are simply allergic to a recycling mindset. But new research from the University of Alberta highlights another culprit: The recyclable material itself.
For a forthcoming paper in the Journal of Consumer Science, two University of Alberta researchers conducted at least 12 studies to determine whether individual types of recyclable material had any impact on a person’s tendency to throw it away. After a preliminary experiment rifling through 22 assistant professors’ garbage and recycling bins, the researchers noticed something peculiar—the academics were more willing to throw small pieces of paper away, but recycled large, mostly intact 8-by-11-inch sheets. Several more experiments in which university students were asked to cut up bits of paper and perform creative writing tasks about aluminum cans repeated the effect: smaller bits of paper were less likely to be recycled, and dented cans were thrown away.
University of Alberta professors Jennifer Argo and Remi Trudel attribute the phenomenon to "form distortion"—the idea that the less the material resembles its original form, the more likely it is to be trashed, and the more likely that smaller items go into the garbage. "I definitely think it’s whatever our norms are, what are beliefs are," Argo says. She cites gum wrappers as an example: "All the things that fall into that realm go in that direction."
Argo points to her daughter’s kindergarten class as an exception to the rule—an instance where the kids are too young (and small, perhaps) to assume that small and malformed things aren't useful to them. "They screwed up the study," Argo says. "When I went by the recycling bin, they had small things in [there]. To them, those things still have value. For us, as we get older, we see fewer uses for that piece of paper."
The usefulness effect was also echoed in Argo’s findings. In an experiment where undergrads were asked to think about the uses for small pieces of paper, researchers found that students were more likely to recycle those scraps than trash them.
Argo hopes that her research, which will be published in December, can inform policy, public health messaging, and perhaps design decisions. "'It’s all useful,' is the message consumers have to hear again and again," she says. And what if packaging could be designed so that we didn’t have to rip it to shreds to get to the goods? "Plastic packaging often has this super duper, heavy duty, hardcore plastic that is invariably going to be destroyed. I [used to] always garbage that," Argo confesses. "But from a company’s perspective, don’t use those packaging options."
Next, Argo and her colleagues want to look into how expressions of identity on packaging affect recycling habits. If companies plaster a product with imagery or symbolism—the Canadian flag, for example—that a person can identify with on a personal level, "our hypothesis is that you’re less likely to trash yourself," Argo says.