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Recycling. That single word brings up a fair level of confusion for many. Indeed, recycling can be quite a tricky subject to navigate with so many different rules affecting a wide variety of materials. Is this item recyclable? Well, I think it is, but do I have to do anything to it before putting it in the bin? And which bin does it go in? If it’s torn or crumpled can it still be recycled? Indeed, there are some surprising factors when it comes to recycling that give a window into what we’re doing right and wrong.
 

It’s Not Just Laziness or Lack of Access

As noted in the October 11, 2016 article “The surprising factors that can stymie materials diversion,” by Lacey Evans of Resource Recycling:

Even the most well-intentioned residents don’t always recycle. According to a recent set of studies, the reason why may be more complicated than just laziness or a lack of access.

Evan’s notes in her article that a recent study published in the Harvard Business Review noted three specific human biases that directly affect recycling:

  • Distortion Bias: If an item is damaged, crumpled, torn or otherwise disfigured, people are far more likely to simply toss that item into the trash. Called distortion bias, people viewed items that have been altered as useless, or as the Harvard study notes, “no longer having a purpose.” Unfortunately, this perception of uselessness pervades into whether an item is viable for recycling. Of course, this bias is incorrect and is a matter of being educated about the actual recycling process. All items put into the recycling bins are considered “un-sorted” when first picked up. All items will undergo a final sorting procedure and virtually none of them will be in pristine condition. Further, the very act of then recycling these sorted items sees each item broken down into its core material, far more than nicked, torn or marred in some way.
  • Identity Bias: The idea of identity bias, also noted in the Harvard study, means that people are more likely to recycle something that is connected to their own identity or self-image. Researchers in the study note as an example of identity bias being the personal preference to recycle a coffee cup that has one’s personal name written on it. Interestingly, if the customer’s name was spelled correctly, it was recycled more than 50% of the time. If the customer’s name was spelled incorrectly, well, most often this cup went into the trash.
  • Moral Licensing: Also noted in the Harvard research study was a factor called “moral licensing.” According to the study, moral licensing means people will inherently seek to use more of a material (vs. another) if they know they have the option of recycling it. This speaks to the fact that, morally, we know we should recycle. Whether or not we do it right, or do it at all, is another factor.
     

    Aspirational Recycling

    Reports differ on how much we actually recycle in the U.S., with varying measures showing we recycle somewhere between 20 and 30% of goods that can be recycled. However, nearly all agree that it should be more. Most people understand the importance of recycling and desire to do their part. Yet this very desire, if not channeled properly, can actually harm the process through what is termed “aspirational recycling,” where one puts items into the recycling bin because they believe that a given item “should” be recycled (without properly following recycling procedures). This creates a headache at the sorting facility as shown in the image below. Some standardization in how recycling programs are run, and of which are taking place now, country-wide, should serve to help everyone make the right choices when it comes time to throw something away or put it in the correct recycling bin.

    Reports differ on how much we actually recycle in the U.S. All agree it could be more. Most "want" to recycle more and can actually harm the process through what is termed "aspirational recycling," where one puts items into the recycling bin because they believe that a given item "should" be recycled (without properly following recycling procedures). This creates a headache at the sorting facility. Image Courtesy: plasticnews.com

    Image Courtesy: plasticnews.com

     

    Useful Recycling Tips and Resources

    Since we’re talking about the human habits of recycling today, here are some facts and tips on this important, planet-saving subject that consumers, manufacturers and retailers should consider:

    • The average person generates over 4 pounds of trash every day and about 1.5 tons of solid waste per year. (source: US EPA)
    • Americans make more than 200 million tons of garbage each year, enough to fill Busch Stadium from top to bottom twice a day. Next time you’re at a sporting event or tailgate, host a trash-free tailgate using only recyclable materials Sign up for Trash-Free Tailgate. (source: US EPA)
    • The EPA estimates that 75% of the American waste stream is recyclable, but we only recycle about 30% of it. (source: Indiana University “Waste & Recycling” April 25, 2015)
    • We generate 21.5 million tons of food waste each year. If we composted that food, it would reduce the same amount of greenhouse gas as taking 2 million cars off the road. (Source: Carnegie Mellon University. “CEE Green Team.” Web Accessed April 25, 2015)
    • Recycling one aluminum can saves enough energy to listen to a full album on your iPod. Recycling 100 cans could light your bedroom for two whole weeks. Sign up for 50 Cans to save energy and show off your creative side.
    • The Container Recycling Institute (CRI) estimates that the 36 billion aluminum cans landfilled last year had a scrap value of more than $600 million.
    • Americans throw away about 28 billion bottles and jars every year.
    • Over 87% of Americans have access to curbside or drop-off paper recycling programs.
    • In 2009, Americans threw away almost 9 million tons of glass. That could fill enough tractor trailers to stretch from NYC to LA (and back!).
    • In 2010, paper recycling had increased over 89% since 1990.
    • A glass container can go from a recycling bin to a store shelf in as few as 30 days.
    View sources of recycling facts list
    • 1 U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. “Municipal Solid Waste.” Web Accessed April 25, 2015.
    • 2 U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. “10 FAST FACTS ON RECYCLING.” Web Accessed April 25, 2015.
    • 3 Indiana University. “Waste & Recycling.” Web Accessed April 25, 2015.
    • 4 Carnegie Mellon University. “CEE Green Team.” Web Accessed April 25, 2015.
    • 5 East Carolina University. “Some Facts on Your Lifestyle and Travel Footprint.” Web Accessed April 25, 2015.
    • 6 U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. “10 FAST FACTS ON RECYCLING.” Web Accessed April 25, 2015.
    • 7 U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. “10 FAST FACTS ON RECYCLING.” Web Accessed April 25, 2015.
    • 8 Keep America Beautiful. “Recycling Facts & Statistics.” Web Accessed April 25, 2015.
    • 9 Keep America Beautiful. “Recycling Facts & Statistics.” Web Accessed April 25, 2015.
    • 10 Keep America Beautiful. “Recycling Facts & Statistics.” Web Accessed April 25, 2015.
    • 11 Keep America Beautiful. “Recycling Facts & Statistics.” Web Accessed April 25, 2015.

     

    Click here for 40 more Facts on Recycling

    Click here for some great home recycling tips

    Click here for some great recycling tips for kids!

    Click here for the “Ultimate 9 Quick Tips for Recycling More Plastic”

    Click here for recycling tips for retailers

    Click here for recycling tips for manufacturers

  • AUTHOR: Dan Meyers