Why Recycling Options Lead People To Waste More

Jun 2, 2017
Originally published on June 8, 2017 2:01 pm
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So when you recycle paper or an empty bottle, do you get that warm little feeling because maybe you think, hey, I've done something right for the world? Well, maybe you shouldn't get that feeling because there's some new social science research out there that suggests recycling can have a downside. Why are you always bringing negative news?


MARTIN: Shankar Vedantam, NPR social science correspondent, here to rain on our recycling parade. Hi, Shankar.

VEDANTAM: Hi, Rachel.

MARTIN: So recycling is bad?

VEDANTAM: No, recycling isn't bad. It's actually very good, Rachel. But in fact, that's where the problem lies. Recycling is so good that it makes us feel virtuous, and that can lead to problematic outcomes. Let me back up and explain. I was talking to Remi Trudel. He's a marketing professor at Boston University. He told me he was having lunch at a restaurant with his colleague, Monic Sun, when they noticed something.

REMI TRUDEL: We noticed that people were just grabbing napkins, like, way more than they needed. And we started thinking is it because they feel, you know, that it's OK because they're going to be recycling it anyways? So then we decided to run some experiments to try to prove it.

MARTIN: So I have to cop to something because I've totally done that, especially with young kids. I grab the paper towels like there's no tomorrow.


MARTIN: And I'm just thinking, oh, it's fine, like, because it's recycled, right?

VEDANTAM: Exactly.

MARTIN: And if I use a towel, it gets gross and then I have to wash it.

VEDANTAM: So that was exactly the insight that Trudel and Sun had. Now, there could be lots of reasons people use extra napkins at a restaurant, so Trudel and Sun decided to go back to their lab and conduct a series of experiments, Rachel. In one of them, they asked people to sample four different beverages. Sometimes the volunteers had a recycling bin to drop their paper cups. Other times, the volunteers had only a trash can.

TRUDEL: You could use a single cup to drink - to sample all four or you could grab a new cup each time. And so we just kept - we kept track of what they did. And sure enough, people used more cups when there was a recycling bin next to the sampling station.

VEDANTAM: The researchers also ran other experiments, Rachel. In one of them, people were asked to wrap a gift. When a recycling can was nearby, people used much more wrapping paper. Trudel told me that we see the same thing in many other domains in real life. If you buy a hybrid car, for example, that's much more efficient, you're much more likely to drive more miles because you feel there's less cost.

MARTIN: So there's not a correlation between recycling and how you think about waste or your own consumption.

VEDANTAM: I think intuitively there is a connection. We think that people who care about recycling will also care about reducing and reusing. But it turns out the feelings that drive those things are different. The motivations for those things are different. When you think your stuff is recyclable, you say, what's the difference?

TRUDEL: There's guilt associated with how much you're going to waste and how you're going to feel throwing that in the trash. If that guilt is lower than the pride that you get from throwing something in the recycling, from doing the right thing, you're more likely to use more resources and waste resources.

MARTIN: So it's just about what makes us feel good.

VEDANTAM: I think it is about what makes us feel good, and that's why when you're designing policies, it's not enough to design policies based on what makes sense. You actually have to pay attention to how people feel.

MARTIN: NPR's Shankar Vedantam. He is NPR's social science correspondent. He's also the host of a podcast that explores the unseen patterns in human behavior. It's called Hidden Brain. You should check it out. Hey, Shankar, thanks so much.

VEDANTAM: Thanks, Rachel.

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