John Metcalfe was CityLab’s Bay Area bureau chief, covering climate change and the science of cities.
The weird psychology of deciding what to do with your trash.
For the green-minded, it can be frustrating to watch somebody chuck a glass bottle into the trash when the recycling bin is right there next to it. But indiscriminate dumpers might not be wasteful on purpose; something in their brain might be telling them what's in their hands is just not recyclable.
When it comes to deciding what we recycle, the shape and condition of the used-up product matters a lot, according to a study that will run in this December's Journal of Consumer Research. If a soda can is dented or a sheet of paper cut up, for instance, humans are more inclined to simply throw it away, say Remi Trudel of Boston University and Jennifer Argo of the University of Alberta in Edmonton. That's more than a little strange, because cutting up cardboard and crunching down cans are frequently the precursors for putting the recycling out on the curb.
Argo and Trudel, who both specialize in consumer behavior, arrived at their counterintuitive finding by offering subjects scissors and paper. They had one group cut the paper into smaller pieces. The other group was told to "evaluate" the scissors, but not to cut the paper. Then the researchers ordered everybody out the door, next to which was a trash can and a recycling bin. People with whole sheets of paper tended to recycle them; those with paper bits were more likely to trash them.
Why on earth is this happening? One hypothesis is that when the shape of a consumer good is distorted and made smaller, our brains assign it to a category quite different from its original function. The damaged or altered object ceased to be a can, a bottle, or a piece of paper, which are all objects of value. Instead, we think of it as "more like garbage" and not worth a trip to the recycling bin, say Argo and Trudel.
This conjecture received back-up support in another study the researchers ran, in which they showed students photos of a dented Coke can and a pristine one. Here's the punched-in Coke:
The students then described the cans using a set list of adjectives. Even though both vessels contained the same amount of valuable aluminum, the students were inclined to portray the dented can as less "clean," "pure," and crucially, "useful." They also indicated they'd be more hesitant to throw the intact can into the regular trash.
This prodding of consumer habits might one day help illuminate why people recycle certain materials but not others. In 2010, for example, Americans recycled 63 percent of the paper they used and 50 percent of aluminum. But for some reason, they only recycled 8 percent of plastics. That's led the researchers to wonder if the process of ripping open plastic packages, like those enshrouding food products, psychologically renders the material worthless.
It might also filter into marketing applications, like making package designs that are resistant to deformation and more likely to wind up in the proper receptacle. That technology can't come soon enough for America: The nation is currently the world's top producer of garbage, with more than 2 billion tons of trash thrown out every year.