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Research on recycling bins says they cause wasteful habits

Research on recycling habits finds that the presence of recycling bins actually increases peoples’ wastefulness. So says a cooperative study between Jesse R Catlin of The Paul Merage School of Business at University of California-Irvine and Yitong Wang of Tsinghua University in Beijing, China.

The study, published in the Journal of Consumer Psychologyis based on two field experiments in which waste production was compared in situations with and without recycle bins present. In the first experiment test groups were provided with a ream of paper and asked to try out a pair of scissors. The groups without recycle bins cut up much less paper than the groups that were provided with one. In the second experiment a recycle bin was provided for paper hand towels in a men’s bathroom that previously had only trash receptacles.  Paper towel use increased by 50% after the bin’s introduction.

The results of this study indicate that people feel better about consuming goods if they can recycle them, thereby decreasing recycling’s positive effect on conserving natural resources. The ability to recycle provides a convenient excuse to consume more, particularly when it comes to disposable goods, whereas the lack of a recycling option induces people to use less since they feel guilty about producing more waste which ends up in the landfill.

“Our findings indicate that merely emphasizing the positive aspects of recycling and enhancing the availability of recycling options may not be sufficient to save natural resources, or at least does not always yield the maximum environmental benefit.”

While I agree with the authors’ findings on this subject, we need to be careful about the message we take away from this study.  I think most of us feel better about the waste we produce if we are able to recycle it and keep it out of the landfill. That would seem to be a given. It is equally true that without a recycling option people will always opt for the trash. In the US at least, the lack of a viable recycling option is not preventing us from consuming huge quantities of disposable goods. Those states that have strong recycling programs, like those in the northeast and on the west coast, are able to divert more of the waste stream, while states that lack those programs, such as those in the south, continue to landfill huge volumes of refuse.

Instead of identifying the presence of recycling bins as a detriment and cause of wastefulness, we should be focusing on other factors that work with recycling to maximize the environmental benefit that can be achieved. Specifically, we need to focus on education and outreach that promotes not only recycling, but re-use and reduction as well, and we need to work towards a national extended producer responsibility policy that would force manufacturers to be responsible for the waste resulting from their products.

Education and outreach is key to the success of any residential recycling program, and it is also key to changing consumption habits. Using a combination of outreach programs, community based social marketing, educational programs and community events, we can spread the word about the importance of reducing the amount of waste we produce in the first place. Lest we forget the ‘Three R’s’ of waste reduction are Reduce, reuse and recycle. A great deal of marketing emphasis has been put on recycling. More of that effort must be directed at reducing consumption. Recycling, after all, uses natural resources, including electricity and water. It should not be seen as a free pass to engage in unfettered consumerism.

Beyond personal buying habits, extended producer responsibility (EPR) has the capacity to significantly change the way goods are marketed and manufactured in the US. EPR forces manufacturers to be responsible for the end-life of their products. Bottle bills are one example. The core charge on automotive batteries is another. These programs require producers to take back their product when the end-user is finished with it. This leads to reduced packaging and increased of use of materials that may be reclaimed rather than landfilled. No corporation wants to be saddled with the costs of disposing all of their used-up goods, so they alter their processes to reduce the amount of waste that results. In Europe EPR is the law, and the result is that virtually every consumable good is recyclable.

Providing adequate recycling options is necessary for a sustainable environment. After all, we are never going to live in a society where no one buys anything and nothing is ever thrown away. But we do need to work at changing consumption habits to reduce the overall amount of waste we produce. Recycling is not without its problems, but let’s keep the recycle bins and work on promoting policies that will further us towards the end goal of a zero waste society.

What do you think?

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