The Behavioral Economics of Recycling


The Behavioral Economics of Recycling

In the Harvard Business Review, OCTOBER 7, 2016

By Remi Trudel

What are the factors that account for a level of recycling to be successful?

Here are some observations–“Two such biases emerged in research my colleagues and I recently conducted on disposal habits. First, we found that people are more likely to recycle items that haven’t been distorted—like undented soda cans and paper that hasn’t been torn into pieces (we call this the “distortion bias”). Second, they are more likely to recycle items linked to an element of their identity—a Starbucks cup with their name on it, for example (the “identity bias”). A third factor affects not what we recycle, but how much we do:  People who know they are going to recycle after completing a task that generates waste use far more resources than they otherwise would have.”

“When an item is sufficiently distorted or changed in size or form, people perceive it as useless—as something without a future. So they throw it in the trash. This partially explains why so much recyclable material winds up in landfill instead. Though we have all been trained to recycle many common items, the EPA estimates only about 65% of paper and 55 % of aluminum gets recycled. By making people aware of this bias, we could potentially change disposal behavior. And sustainability minded companies could improve recycle rates through innovations in packaging that, for example, increase ease in opening and decrease distortion, which could improve the likelihood that packaging will be recycled and even reused.”

. . .” We consistently found that people are more likely to recycle than discard identity-linked products – and that trashing these products can lower self-esteem. As might be expected, it feels bad to throw a piece of yourself in the trash, so people avoid it. By creating an identity link or making an existing link stronger, we might make consumers less likely to trash recyclable items. Many firms already link products to our identities but may not be aware of the disposal consequences. For instance, Coca-Cola’s “Share a Coke” campaign, where consumers find their names on bottles of Coke, is likely to increase recycle rates for those who drink from a bottle with their name on it.”

“Sometimes the option to recycle may bias how much of an item we use. For example, my colleague Monic Sun and I examined how much people consume when they have the option to recycle versus throw away. Research subjects were instructed to use as much or as little of a product as they wanted. In one study they wrapped gifts; in another they used scrap paper to solve math problems, and in another they selected a gift. In each experiment, half of the participants could recycle what they used; the other half could only discard it. We consistently found that people used far more resources (wrapping paper, scrap paper, plastic cups, plastic packaging) when they knew they were going to recycle. . . .

Read more at Harvard Business Review.


Remi Trudel is an Assistant Professor of Marketing at Questrom School of Business, Boston University.