The Fascinating Psychology Of Why And What We Choose To Recycle

Can we nudge people to recycle more by redesigning packaging?

The Fascinating Psychology Of Why And What We Choose To Recycle
[Photo: Flickr user Peter Kaminski]

Marketers have long investigated what motivates us to buy stuff: how to arrange shopping aisles and shelves; the best colors, fonts, and logos to use on packaging; and so on. But, until recently, little work has gone into the other end of a product’s life: why and when we recycle. How come some of us do it and some of us don’t, and how come sometimes we forget or pretend it doesn’t matter, even when we know we should?


Remi Trudel, an assistant professor at Boston University, has begun to answer these questions in a series of experiments looking at our recycling ticks and foibles. For example, he’s found that we’re twice as likely to recycle when the item is relatively intact, compared to when it’s torn or crumpled. We’re more likely to recycle when we identify and like a brand–whether it’s a Coke, or a sweatshirt from college. And, we’re more likely to waste resources, perversely, when we know what we don’t use will be recycled. Recycling, in that sense, promotes consumption, as it frees us from the guilt of using more than we might, he says.

[Photo: shaunl/iStock]

Trudel observed the first phenomenon–what he calls “distortion bias”–from looking at his colleagues’ waste containers. The recycling bins seemed to contain pristine items–whole plastic bottles and cans–while the trash contained mangled, torn-up stuff. He subsequently tested the observation in a research study, and the pattern held: Something about the intactness of objects seems to cause us to value it more. Trudel says we might think about designing packaging that stays relatively in one piece when we open it, rather than, say, a thick plastic shell that you need to destroy on opening.

The observation about “identity bias”–that we’re more likely to recycle when we identify with a product–is equally interesting. “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,” Trudel writes in a recent article in the Harvard Business Review. Branded goods are more likely to be recycled than unbranded goods, he says, and if we like Coke over Pepsi, we’re more likely to recycle the former than the latter.

The third observation is more troubling, as recycling may in fact increase waste. Trudel writes:

Our findings suggest that the positive emotions associated with recycling can overpower the negative emotions, like guilt, associated with wasting. As a result, consumers feel comfortable using a larger amount of a resource when recycling is an option. Conserving resources in one domain may lead you to waste resources in another–in effect, giving yourself a pass because of your prior good behavior–a phenomenon known in social science as “moral licensing.”

In an interview, Trudel says more work needs to be done before we can come up with actual nudges and interventions that increase recycling rates. But the research indicates that more studies could bear fruit. Our behavior is dictated not only by our internal orientation–for example, our politics or income levels–but also by our external environment. Even putting frowny faces on the trash–or labeling it “landfill” rather than just “trash,” thus reminding people of waste’s ultimate destination–could cause us to think twice about our decision, he says.

About the author

Ben Schiller is a New York staff writer for Fast Company. Previously, he edited a European management magazine and was a reporter in San Francisco, Prague, and Brussels.