Recycling feels good. We haven’t met anybody who denies it. The feeling of tossing a bit of paper, a bottle, or some cardboard into a recycling bin is kind of like putting coins in a piggy bank, giving money to a beggar, or finishing paperwork: you are taking care of business. You are saving the environment. You are a good person.
Human beings are particularly adept at thinking up ways to excuse their behavior. For this reason, I am often skeptical of solutions that require little change in behavior and result in lots of people feeling good.
In an article published in the Journal of Consumer Psychology, “Recycling Gone Bad: When the Option to Recycle Increases Resource Consumption,” Jesse Catlin and Yitong Wang demonstrate how recycling functions as an excuse rather than a solution.
The authors asked participants in the study to cut sheets of paper as a means of evaluating different scissors. Some participants were only provided with a garbage bin in the evaluation area, while others were given both a garbage and recycling bin. The participants who were provided with a recycle bin used more paper than those who only had a garbage can.
In another experiment, the authors studied paper towel usage in public restrooms. At first they measured how many paper towels people used when there was only a garbage bin. Then they added a recycling bin and once more measured paper towel usage. You should not be surprised that they found people will use more paper towels when there is a recycle bin in which to toss them.
The authors found that people will conserve more when they don’t have the option to recycle. In general, people tend to agree that reducing our excessive usage of resources is the most effective way to contribute towards a sustainable relationship with our environment. It seems to me that the Recycling Gone Bad experiment demonstrates that recycling can work against sustainability.
Professor Michael Munger says that we are worshiping at the church of recycling. The director of communications at Keep America Beautiful says “Recycling is the primary environmental action individuals most associate with in terms of actions they can take.” Every city in the US is busy proclaiming its recycling rate and vowing to increase it.
Despite the good-karma aura that surrounds recycling, our experience over the last year has been that recycling is a mixed bag: sometimes effective, sometimes wasteful. Coupled with experiments like the one mentioned above, it makes me wonder why curbside recycling has such wholesale support. This train of thought was started for me by something Adam Minter said in his book, Junkyard Planet:
“Placing a box or a can or a bottle in a recycling bin doesn’t mean you’ve recycled anything, and it doesn’t make you a better, greener person: it just means you’ve outsourced your problem. Sometimes that outsourcing is near home; and sometimes it’s overseas. But wherever it goes, the global market and demand for raw materials is the ultimate arbiter. Fortunately, if that realization leaves you feeling bad, there’s always the alternative: stop buying so much crap in the first place.”