By Mary Mazzoni on Sep 3, 2013

Study: People Don’t Recycle Damaged Goods

Is this crinkled ball of paper less likely to be recycled than a flat piece of paper? Photo: Flickr/Kate Ter Haar

Is this crinkled ball of paper less likely to be recycled than a flat piece of paper? Photo: Flickr/Kate Ter Haar

The U.S. recycling rate has risen by less than 6 percent in the past decade. This sad but true stat leaves many greenies wondering what’s stopping American consumers from blue-binning it more often.

A new study, published in the peer-reviewed Journal of Consumer Research, seeks to answer this common question by looking beyond the typical scapegoats, like curbside recycling access and confusing plastic resin codes, and examining the thought process that leads consumers to toss recyclables in the trash.

The study’s authors, Jennifer Argo of the University of Alberta School of Business and Remi Trudel of Boston University, theorized that consumers are psychologically hardwired to believe that damaged or incomplete products — such as small or ripped paper and dented cans — are without value.

After testing their theory through a field study and four laboratory studies, the researchers 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 is seemingly autonomic, Argo says, and can only be overcome by helping consumers realize a product’s true value.

“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,” Argo said in a press release. “As soon as they did that, 80 percent of the time it went into the recycling. It was an automatic flip that it became useful to them again.”

So, how can this mind-set shift be accomplished on a large scale? Argo suggests that modifying product packaging design to preserve a whole and undamaged appearance after opening could yield surprisingly positive results.

“Make it easier to preserve the condition the package is actually in once it has been opened,” Argo said. “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.”

What do you think? Are you more likely to recycle a whole piece of paper than a small scrap of packaging, or does this study miss the mark? Tell us about it in the comments.

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