Recycling: A Free Pass for Wasteful Consumption?

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Do you get a small but palpable sense of satisfaction each time you deposit a piece of paper in that recycling bin by the copy machine, rather than the nearby trash can?

Save the smugness. Newly published research suggests the presence of that receptacle may inspire you and your officemates to use more paper than you otherwise would, depleting natural resources in the process.

“Consumers may view the ability to recycle a product as a ‘get out of jail free card’ that makes consumption more acceptable,” write Jesse Catlin of the University of California, Irvine and Yitong Wang of Tsinghua University in Beijing. “Put differently, the ability to recycle a product may also serve as a way to justify increased consumption.”

“Recycling saves resources” has long been an item of faith in much of the environmental community, but the two experiments described in this research, published in the Journal of Consumer Psychology, casts doubt on that assumption.

In the first experiment, 44 undergraduates were asked to evaluate a pair of scissors by cutting different shapes out of pieces of paper. Each participant was seated alone in a small room, in which a 200-sheet stack of paper was placed on a desk. Half the rooms contained both a trash can and a recycling bin; the others held only a trash can.

Once the participants finished this “product evaluation” task, research assistants retrieved their discarded pieces of cut-up paper. “The mean amount used in the recycling condition was almost twice the mean amount used in the trash-can-only condition,” they report.

The second experiment took place in a men’s restroom used by students, faculty, and staff in a university building. The researchers first collected data on the amount (by weight) of paper hand towels used during a 15-day period. They then installed a large recycling bin near the sinks, along with a sign indicating it was part of a new hand-towel recycling program, and measured restroom and paper towel usage over the following 15 days.

Once again, the mean weight of paper used increased when the recycling option was offered. The difference was small – approximately one gram (or half a paper towel) per person – but as the researchers note, such a difference “becomes increasingly substantial” when you consider the number of people who use public restrooms.

“Our findings indicate that merely emphasizing the positive aspects of recycling and enhancing the availability of recycling options may not be sufficient to save natural resources, or at least does not always yield the maximum environmental benefit,” Catlin and Wang conclude.

The researchers note that while most people are aware of the beneficial aspects of recycling, few are familiar with the environmental costs inherent in the recycling process, such as water and energy use. They suggest that while governments and environmental organizations should continue to encourage recycling, they also need to inform people that it “is not a perfect solution, and that reducing overall consumption is desirable as well.”

A full recycling bin isn’t necessarily a good thing.