Recycling appears to be seen as ‘get out of jail free card’

by Michael Smith (Veshengro)

Consumers faced with the opportunity to recycle are likely to increase their resource consumption compared to those who aren’t in the position to do so, states a new study entitled ‘Recycling gone bad’ conducted by the University of California and the Tsinghua University in Beijing.

Recently published in the ‘Journal of Consumer Psychology’, the report questions the desirability of making recycling more available, arguing that it makes consumers ‘more wasteful’. This is especially the case if it concerns a product for which they are not required to pay directly, such as items available at a public facility.

Researchers Jesse R. Catlin and Yitong Wang came to this conclusion by doing an experiment which called for a group of 44 people to evaluate a new pair of scissors by cutting some of the provided paper. When divided into two groups, one with a recycling bin and one with only a waste bin present, it soon became clear that the subjects in close proximity to the recycling bin consumed significantly more paper. A similar test in rest rooms produced exactly the same result: consumers used far more paper towels once a recycling bin had been introduced.

This type of behavior, explains Mr Catlin, takes root in the belief that recycling serves as a way to ‘justify increased consumption’ as it actively reduces the ‘guilt associated with consuming and disposing of a product’. He refers to this notion as a sort of ‘get out of jail free card’, rendering more extreme consumption of material socially acceptable.

‘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 doing this does not always yield the maximum environmental benefit,’ the researchers state.

According to Mr Wang, consumers might act differently if they knew more about what it takes to keep a sustainable industry running. ‘Though consumers are well informed that recycling is beneficial to the environment, the environmental costs of recycling, such as the water, energy, etc. used in recycling facilities, are less salient,’ he says.

I must say that I have found this, basically, in the fact that a great many people, when presented with the option to toss things into the recycling bin also cannot think of a reuse for a products such as, say a tin can or a glass jar.

While our parents and grandparents had the reuse mindset our current generation seem to only understand recycle and waste materials that our ancestors would have reused, and they simply do so because recycling is available and gives them a feeling of doing something for the environment.

As far as our parents and grandparents were concerned they reused tun cans, glass jars, and whatever else simply because it saved them money. Saving resources was not so much thought of as such back then.

There are times when I wonder as to whether we have actually advanced and I am coming to the conclusion that we really have not for while our ancestors did not create much waste because they could not afford to waste the packaging we create waste because we can recycle the stuff.

What, pray, happened to the notion of reducing what we waste in the first time by reducing the amount of packaging, for one? It seems to have gotten nowhere.

And, let's face it, it is not just the amount of packaging that is creating the waste. What is creating the greatest amount of waste is the fact that almost everything that is produced is made in such a way that it cannot be repaired and, ultimately, after a year or two, or maybe three, or even less than a year, has to be thrown away.

In our parents' and grandparents' time almost everything could be repaired and it was being repaired time and again until, finally, it no longer could be fixed. Today almost nothing can be fixed and has to be thrown out and that all so that the economy keeps going. No wonder that recycling is seen as the get out of jail free card.

The entire report can be downloaded at:

© 2012