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The Psychology of Recycling

By Sustainability Office on July 14, 2017
-Annaliese Clauze ’20

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“Reduce, reuse, recycle!” Most of us have heard the championing cry of the green movement so often that it’s now ingrained in the very fabric of our psyches. To hear the mantra, changing our behaviors to make our lives more sustainable and more efficient should be a simple, three-step process.

And yet, recycling rates in the United States in 2013 only reached 34.3%, putting it at the number 17 spot on the list of countries in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. (Source) Here on Colgate’s campus, recycling rates during Recyclemania 2017 only reached 11.41%.

So what’s stopping us? Even when we have only the best of intentions regarding our recycling habits, something seems to stop us from making the meaningful changes to our behaviors necessary to effect a real change.

Many studies have looked into this very phenomenon. What they have discovered points to a number of effects and biases that often prevent individuals from recycling responsibly.

  1. The Distortion Bias: Studies have shown that one of the strongest influences on recycling behavior is something known as the distortion bias. (Source) The distortion bias is the effect by which people are less likely to recycle an item after the item has been torn, crushed, or dented–in other words, its identity has been distorted. Once a material that normally would be recycled, such as glass, paper, or aluminum, is viewed in the eyes of the consumer as ruined, it is likely that the object will be reidentified subconsciously as garbage and miss the recycling bin entirely.
  2. Peer Pressure: Surprise, surprise: studies show that people tend to adhere to recycling guidelines more when others in their peer group do as well. What’s perhaps more surprising though, is that this effect works similarly in reverse; people are more likely to forego their recycling habits when surrounded by those who do not recycle. (Source) So, for example, a college campus that does not energetically promote healthy recycling behaviors amongst its students will likely see lower recycling rates than one where peer pressure does its part.
  3. Far-Removed Results: Perhaps one of the most negatively impactful biases affecting people’s recycling behavior is the belief that the results of one individual’s behaviors have an inconsequential, meaningless impact on the overall picture. After all, the social and emotional gratification that comes with recycling is short lived, and more often than not the average lay-person will not have the opportunity to see the big-picture effect that their actions can have. (Source)

So what’s to be done to overcome these biases? Mindfulness can go a long way towards improving your own day-to-day behavior, and may make you more aware of just how great of an impact your actions can have. Creating small goals for yourself and rewarding your achievements can go a long way towards establishing healthy recycling behaviors to last you a lifetime.


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