When in doubt, throw it out. For years, this slogan belonged to food safety efforts. Now it’s being adopted as a new mantra for recycling efforts throughout North America. Cities like Washington, Vancouver and even Tulsa use this slogan to simplify the guessing game of sorting household waste and, ultimately, minimize contamination of the recycling stream.
But could recycling’s new mantra be a case of oversimplification rather than education? With consumers defaulting to their trash cans, many recyclable materials may be going to waste. Researchers have identified that this issue is exacerbated when materials are damaged or distorted.
“When products are functionally distorted (in size and form), they become less useful. [They] are perceived to be more like garbage, and are less likely to be recycled.”
According to a recent study, it is quite common for confusion to exist about which damaged materials can and cannot be recycled. Researchers Remi Trudel (Boston University) and Jennifer Argo (University of Alberta) identified a negative correlation between how distorted a product is and the likelihood that item will be recycled.
“When products are functionally distorted (in size and form), they become less useful,” reads the study. “[They] are perceived to be more like garbage, and are less likely to be recycled.”
Assessing the Damage
To gauge a product’s distortion, Trudel and Argo measured recyclable materials in relation to their prototypical distortion. The more a damaged item deviated from its original shape, size and design, the further down it went on the study’s graded scale.
An item’s placement on this scale, then, inherently has a connection to its usefulness. For instance, a dented piece of aluminum foil can easily be reused for its original purpose. Because it will be closer to its prototypical origin, it is more likely to be recycled. However, a piece of paper that is torn into a dozen smaller pieces will seem inadequate for tasks that require paper, such as taking notes, drawing or printing. These pieces are more likely to be thrown away.
“Products that are perceived to be useful should be more typical of a recyclable,” said the study. This means that if a product is seen as being “unusable,” it will more likely be thrown away even though its usability does not affect its recyclability.
An additional conclusion the researchers made was that size also influenced consumers' recycling decisions. While items were recycled less often if they were reduced in size, a distorted product—if large enough or close enough in size to the original—was often deemed recyclable.
Piecing It Together
Trudel and Argo hope that their research, much like the distorted items in the study, will be recycled to develop the dialogue and education on recycling trends.
“Most firms want to be responsible with green initiatives. This research can help educate employees of their biases,” explained Trudel.
This study is only one piece of a larger puzzle, but it provides critical insight into how waste producers think. In turn, it will help waste processors find effective solution to growing recycling inefficiencies.
Trudel, R., and Argo, J. 2013. The Effect of Product Size and Form Distortion on Consumer Recycling Behavior. Journal of Consumer Research. 40.4: 632-643.