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Rethinking damaged goods: why we won’t recycle trash

| August 29, 2013

When you see an item that is torn, broken, smashed, or otherwise damaged, do you automatically think of it as trash?

Professor Jennifer Argo of the University of Alberta’s School of Business says you probably do. Argo, a marketing professor, conducted a study along with Remi Trudel of Boston University. Their study, which  recently reviewed in Science Daily, suggests: “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 cans — are useless, and this leads users to trash them rather than recycle them.” Meaning, we just can’t seem to recycle trash.

recycle trash

People are less likely to recycle dented cans. From Daniel Oines.

Here’s the big problem: how often do items make it into a recycling bin unscathed in the first place? We’re surrounded every day by items that are no longer in their original, perfect form, but are still very much worthy of recycling and renewal. After all, if an item is in flawless condition, why would we be getting rid of it in the first place?

It turns out that our individual role in the “destruction” of an item has a lot to do with whether we’ll choose to trash it or recycle it. For example, “Argo says that although some people crush their [aluminum] cans to make more room in the recycling bag, they overwhelmingly reject a can that is pre-crushed or otherwise dented or damaged.”

Why is this the case? Argo says it all comes back to how useful we think the item is in its current condition. The soda can we just emptied reads as useful to us, but the can we find crushed in the park appears to have no value.

This, of course, is significantly flawed logic since cans are inevitably crushed and mangled beyond recognition in order to go through the recycling process. However, apparently, we need to believe that it is still whole and pristine in order to imagine it as a recyclable item.

recycle trash

In a study, most people put damaged paper in the trash instead of with the recycling. From Pink Sherbet Photography.

As part of Argo and Trundel’s study, as reported in Nature World News, participants in two groups were given a pair of scissors and blank pieces of typing paper. They were asked to evaluate the scissors either by cutting blank pieces of typing paper into one or two smaller pieces or by examining them without making cuts to the paper. After they were done, the subjects were asked to dispose of their paper on the way out of the room in two identical bins, one for recycling and one for garbage. Surprisingly, the subjects recycled the whole sheets of paper more often than they did the scraps of paper, regardless of the total amount of paper they were disposing of.

In short, we think that pristine=recyclable and damaged=trash.

So what do we do? We need to shift the way people think, says Argo. As Science Daily reports, “[Argo thinks] 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.”

Argo also thinks packaging adjustments could help consumers continue to assign value to used items. “Make it easier to preserve the condition the package is actually in once it has been opened,” she says.

While it’s true that there are restrictions on recycling items that are actually contaminated, simple physical damage (such as torn paper or a crushed can) certainly don’t inhibit an item’s “recyclability.” Better education and clearer messaging can help ensure that more goods end up in the right place.

Category: Recycling programs

About the Author ()

Ellen Hunter Gans has been writing for RecycleReminders since the blog’s inception. She is passionate about words, new media and, of course, recycling.

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