featured image courtesy of cote licensed via Creative Commons
You would be hard-pressed to find someone who doesn’t believe recycling is a good idea. Granted, you might find people who agree that recycling is beneficial to the planet but, when push comes to shove, are too lazy to actually do it. You also will run into people who just don’t care enough about the planet to even pretend to believe in recycling. But most people, I think, believe at least on a superficial that it’s a good thing to do.
I’m one of those people. My wife and I recycle paper, plastic, and cardboard. We stockpile it in our basement and then haul it to a local recycling center every few weeks. It feels nice to be doing my part in reducing waste in the landfills and contributing to a cleaner planet. I recycle everyday without really thinking much of it. It’s as easy as tossing an item in a different container.
Economists often talk about unintended consequences of our behavior. We do something that seems right to us out of the purest intentions, but it actually leads to subsequent adverse effects that we didn’t foresee (example: you give a homeless man money for food, and he buys drugs). Economists call these counter-productive unintended consequences “negative externalities.” But surely there couldn’t be anything wrong with recycling, right? Well, a new study suggests that there might just be negative externalities associated with something even as well-intentioned as recycling. Let’s take a look…
Article Summary: Recycling Gone Bad
Catlin, J. R., & Wang, Y. (2013). Recycling gone bad: When the option to recycle increases resource consumption. Journal Of Consumer Psychology (Elsevier Science), 23(1), 122-127.
Jesse Catlin of Washington State University Tri-Cities and Yitong Wang of Tsinghua University suggest that the option of recycling may lead consumers to use more resources than they would otherwise use when there is no option of recycling available. Their proposition is the result of two experiments conducted at a university in the western United States–one a laboratory experiment and the other a field experiment
The Laboratory Experiment
The researchers split a group of 44 undergraduate students into two groups and placed them in two separate rooms. In each room, there was a desk, chair, computer, pair of scissors, and a stack of 1000 grams of plain white paper. In one room, there was placed a waste basket. In the other room, there was placed a waste basked and a recycling bin. To make sure the students saw both the recycling bin and the waste basket, they were asked to verify all of the items that were in the rooms.
Students were told that they would be doing a product evaluation. They had to evaluate the scissors by cutting a series of shapes in the paper. After they were finished, they had to dispose of all the scrap paper and leave nothing on the desk. At the end of the experiment, they rated the quality of the scissors on a scale of 1 to 7. Students were also asked to complete a questionnaire about their “green” attitudes.
At the end of the experiment, the total amounts of paper used in both rooms was measured. There was no correlation found between the amount of paper used and the students’ attitudes on “green” issues. In the room with the waste basked only, the students used an average of 9.45 grams per person. In the room with the waste basket and the recycling bin, the students used an average of 27.9 grams per person–almost three times as much paper.
The Field Experiment
The researchers monitored a men’s restroom for a period of 30 days, weighing the total amount of paper towel waste each evening. For the first 15 days, the researchers placed only a waste basket in the restroom. For the second 15 days, the researchers added a recycling bin and placed it next to the waste basket. The researchers placed a ticker on the foot of the doorway that counted each time the door swung. A “restroom user” was defined as four door-swings, to account for the door opening and closing as the person entered and exited.
At the end of the 30 days, the total weight of paper towels used during the first 15 days was compared to that of those used in the second 15 days. The amount of paper towel usage per person with only the waste basket available was found to be 6.12 grams. When the recycling bin was added, the amount of paper towel usage increased to 7.13 grams.
The authors agree that the increase does not seem substantial. But, unlike the laboratory experiment, the field experiment has a fairly large sample size. The restroom has about 100 visitors per day and there are about 25 business days in the month. Therefore, the potential total increase would be about 12,500 individual paper towels (each weighing 2 grams) per year.
The authors conclude that the findings agree with much other research on the unintended consequences of recycling programs. Other studies have shown that people engage in “green” behaviors to alleviate guilt and justify subsequent non–”green” behaviors. For example, someone who recycles may rationalize taking a higher-pollution mode of transportation. The authors conclude that consumers use recycling as a “get-out-of-jail-free card,” enabling them to use as many resources they please as long as they recycle the waste.
This study has major implications for consumers, policy makers, and “green” marketers. Recycling may not be as harmless of an environmentally-friendly endeavor as we may think. Because we subconsciously justify using more materials when recycling options are available, we end up demanding more energy usage in the production of those additional resources. The additional production of materials we feel justified in using indiscreetly takes a toll on the environment as well.
“Green” marketers, it would seem, have the upper hand on this one. As long as consumers use recycling as a justification to use more resources, producers of “recyclable” products are likely to sell more of those products.
As consumers, if we truly want to have a positive impact on the environment, we need to recognize that recycling should not be used as a license for greater and more careless consumption. If we want to save the planet, we will pay just as much attention to how much materials we are using in total as we do to the amount that we are recycling.
Policy makers need to be aware of the negative unintended consequences of recycling in the form of increased resource usage. In addition to recycling programs, initiatives related to reducing total usage of resources might also be worth considering.
Questions for Future Research
- How would the participants in the studies react if they knew their consumption was being monitored?
- How would the participants in the studies alter their behavior of they had to pay for the materials they used?
- How would the option to recycle in the first study affect the results of the product evaluations?
- What are the perceptions of participant in the first study in regards to their levels of resource usage? In other words, how much paper did they think they were using?