The 'whole' problem with recycling

Aug 22, 2013

Findings from a University of Alberta researcher shed new light on what may be stopping people from recycling more.

Jennifer Argo, a marketing professor in the U of A's Alberta School of Business, says that people are psychologically hard-wired to believe that products that are damaged or that aren't whole—such as small or ripped paper or dented —are useless, and this leads users to trash them rather than recycle them. To circumvent overcrowding and , Argo says consumers and manufacturers can take steps to override the urge to toss wholly recyclable items.

"We can change the way products look. We can change the way people perceive them too in terms of their usefulness," she said.

Every scrap is sacred

From their observations and study findings, Argo and co-author Remi Trudel of Boston University found that once a recyclable item ceased to retain its whole form—whether a package that was cut open or a strip of paper torn from a whole piece—users demonstrated an alarming tendency to throw it in the garbage. The process, she says, is seemingly autonomic and likely related to our literal definition of garbage as something being worthless. When it comes to blue-binning it versus using the circular , the size of the object does not matter; the trick, she says, is getting people to recognize that for themselves.

"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," said Argo. "As soon as they did that, 80 per cent of the time it went into the . It was an automatic flip that it became useful to them again."

The crushed-can conundrum

The other challenge to changing recycling habits comes into play when the product, while still whole, is somehow damaged, imperfect or spoiled. Using a common household item from the study as an example, Argo says although some people crush their cans to make more room in the recycling bag, they overwhelmingly reject a can that is pre-crushed or otherwise dented or damaged. Again, she points out, it is all in the way the usefulness of the can's current condition is perceived.

"People see it as a damaged good that is not useful anymore in any way—what can you do with a crushed can?" Argo said. "If the can came to you crushed and you had to make the decision, our research shows that it's going in the ."

Change products, change beliefs?

Argo stresses the challenge to recycling is largely about changing people's beliefs. Policy-makers need to step up efforts to encourage recycling, especially when it comes to messages about the need to recycle and compost as much of household goods as possible. Size and condition are artificial determinants. Incorporating repetitive messaging from producers encouraging recycling is important, she notes, but so is looking at changing packaging.

"Make it easier to preserve the condition the package is actually in once it has been opened," said Argo. "It might mean more expensive packaging because it's a different type.

"I think it's worth the investment because I have no doubt in my mind that people will recycle it to a greater extent than they currently do."

Explore further: Implications for the fate of green fertilizers

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User comments : 15

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tadchem
5 / 5 (2) Aug 22, 2013
The solution is to develop technology to "mine" landfills for recyclable materials.
Gmr
5 / 5 (2) Aug 22, 2013
Wall-E references aside, if you could get your arms around the organics and heavy metal effluvium, generated methane and other outgassings, this does have some potential as either a bulk material or minable resource. Or both. I've wondered if there wasn't a way to compress and encapsulate shredded waste into an affordable Lego-like man-portable mud and brick alternative.
rkolter
5 / 5 (2) Aug 22, 2013
The solution is to make recycling as simple as throwing something out. To recycle, I have to sort my trash, and put the recycle trash in a different bin. That bin is picked up on a different day than my trash, and if I have any non-recycles in it, they either don't take the bin or they leave the non-recycleables on my lawn.

Make recycling less of a pain, at all steps of the process, and you will get more recycling done.
rug
3 / 5 (4) Aug 22, 2013
Single stream recycling - http://en.wikiped...ecycling

There are some places that even when they pick up your trash it's sent to a single stream recycling system. Most of the people in these areas don't even realise it's being done.
Eikka
not rated yet Aug 23, 2013
if it's worth recycling, it's worth paying money for, like for aluminium cans.

The problem is that the recyclable worth of many things is so small that it doesn't really pay for the effort of people recycling them. What's the point of driving a separate truck around the neighborhood picking up things that aren't worth the fuel it takes to do that?
DarkHorse66
not rated yet Aug 23, 2013
if it's worth recycling, it's worth paying money for, like for aluminium cans.

The problem is that the recyclable worth of many things is so small that it doesn't really pay for the effort of people recycling them. What's the point of driving a separate truck around the neighborhood picking up things that aren't worth the fuel it takes to do that?


I dare say that the sorted scrap then gets sold to companies who use it to make new products made with that material. And if your local council owns the sorting station, guess how that contributes to council coffers (well, a little bit at least)
Cheers, DH66

DarkHorse66
not rated yet Aug 23, 2013
Try googling "price of recycled metal"
or even just the following and pick a couple:
https://www.googl...aluminum
heres one specific page:
http://www.metalp...reeChart
Those are big trucks. I would say that they get more than their fuel costs back, or a private recycling collector's business would go under immediately.
Cheers, DH66
Eikka
not rated yet Aug 24, 2013
I dare say that the sorted scrap then gets sold to companies who use it to make new products made with that material. And if your local council owns the sorting station, guess how that contributes to council coffers (well, a little bit at least)


That's kinda the point. However, the true cost of the system often gets passed on to the residents in the form of higher taxes and fees, while the company that actually uses the material pays a pittance for it. The recycled material has to be cheaper than the virgin material, or else they simply wouldn't bother buying it from the local council.

So as it is, you end up paying to get your waste recycled so local authorities can get a bit more dosh by first making you pay for the process and then selling the products, so that the corporations can get cheaper materials and some "green" PR. Meanwhile, none of this actually has to use less energy or materials.

If something was really worth recycling, they'd pay you for it.
Eikka
not rated yet Aug 24, 2013
Try googling "price of recycled metal"


Metals are one of the things worth recycling. That's why you can actually collect a bunch of tin cans, copper wire, junk iron etc. and drive it to a scrap yard where they pay for it by the pound.

All sorts of banana peels, glass bottles, paper, etc. are essentially worthless. Nobody actually pays you to recycle them, because they're worth more as fuel than as recyclable materials. Things like old broken glass ends up being ground up and buried mixed with gravel under roads, because it has no real use other than to make a revenue stream for people whose job is to recycle things, because someone decided you have to recycle things and use recycled materials to be "green".
antialias_physorg
not rated yet Aug 24, 2013
In germany we do a lot of recycling. We grumble about the added hassle but we do it anyway (paper, plastics, biodegradeables - all have their separate bins in every household). By now it's second nature to most everyone.

So how did they get us to do it? As stupid as it may sound the major part was an almost Orwellian relabeling of the term 'M�Ľll' (garbage) into 'Wertstoff' (has no direct translation. It means something like: 'Stuff that still has value / is useful')

..the other part was that garbage trucks would just leave your garbage uncollected if they notice you mixing in stuff that doesn't belong in the appropriate trashcan.

(There's other systems in stores that collect soft plastic bottles, glass bottles - for which you pay a deposit up front and which you get back on returning them. Then there's still other places that will take back defunct electronics, batteries, wood, styrofoam, metal, and 'the rest' for little to no money)
Eikka
not rated yet Aug 24, 2013
'Wertstoff' (has no direct translation. It means something like: 'Stuff that still has value / is useful'


Worth-stuff.

The deposit system is yet another example of passing on the cost of the recycling down to the consumers so that the companies can save money. It's not so much an incentive to recycle, but a punishment if you don't, because the deposit is your money to begin with.

If there was no deposit, the companies would have to actually buy the bottles back from the consumers, which would open the whole recycling cycle to supply and demand regulation: if the cost of recycling is greater than the gain, then no recycling happens.

This is kinda important, because economy is indirectly related to ecology. The more money goes around because of some product, the more other stuff gets spent. Spending a million on a recycling scheme actually causes other consumption by the people who profit from building and running it.

antialias_physorg
not rated yet Aug 24, 2013
Worth-stuff.

Not quite. There is a subtle connotation to this word that means it's been used and isn't quite worth as much as it was. There's also a connotation that it isn't pure (i.e. that what you get is shredded/mixed). Translations are quirky that way.

The deposit system is yet another example of passing on the cost of the recycling down to the consumers so that the companies can save money.

While true there is no burden to a company that will NOT be passed on to the consumer. The consumer pays for everything. Always. Any kind of policy will always be paid for by the consumer/taxpayer (and if a company is a taxpayer then that added cost will again be passed onto the consumer)

Companies are that way. They are in it for the profit. And shouldering costs isn't good for profit.

antialias_physorg
5 / 5 (1) Aug 24, 2013
It's not so much an incentive to recycle, but a punishment if you don't, because the deposit is your money to begin with.

Again true. But it works.
A quirky side effect is that it has given homeless people an incentive to collect discarded cans, glass and plastic bottles for the deposit. As a result the landscape is much cleaner than, for example, in Italy, Spain or Greece where such deposit systems don't exist and people just dump their stuff everywhere.

If there was no deposit, the companies would have to actually buy the bottles back from the consumers,

Which doesn't work, since they'd just import cheaper stuff from China (because there they don't care of they pollute the environment in the production process).
In any case: Do you honestly think the companies WOULDN'T add the cost of any buy-back price to the product to start with? Where would be the difference? You'd pay up front again.

This way at least companies MUST take their wares back.
Eikka
not rated yet Aug 27, 2013
Which doesn't work, since they'd just import cheaper stuff from China


Which is besides the point.

The point is that if it's actually cheaper to recycle something than make it anew, then the company will pay for it, because it's cheaper to buy the material back than source new material. Of course they will add that price to the price of the goods, just like they add the price of any raw material they use - only, the product will be cheaper because it is recycled, not more expensive because the company uses a politically mandated deposit system to punish the consumer if they don't hand them the material back for free.

Getting the material back for free can make it possible to recycle even when it's not really reasonable to do so, and estimating the cost and benefit is difficult when the cost is hidden by the deposit.
Eikka
not rated yet Aug 27, 2013
The biggest problem with recycling seems to be, that companies don't really understand recycling and how it can make things cheaper for them. They're designing throw-away things because they don't know how to re-use them rather than it being cheaper.

And the other problem is logistics again: it makes little sense for every company to go around collecting garbage, when the gargabe just ends up getting burned or ground down to be mixed with gravel.