How the Way We Think Influences the Way We Recycle

It seems there exists a certain recycling bias in our collective psyche in regards to what we “think” is recyclable versus what actually is recyclable.  A marketing professor from Boston University, Remi Trudel, has discovered that we make unconscious decisions when it comes to recycling based upon our “perception of usefulness”.  You can read the story and listen to the interview on NPR by following this link.

He observed his volunteers’ recycling habits when given a whole sheet of paper, scraps of paper and a soda can.  What do you think they did with each item when it came time to throw them away?  If you said they were all recycled, you would be surprisingly incorrect.  They all recycled their full sheets of paper, but the scrap paper went into the trash can because it was seen as too far gone to be of any use. The same goes for their soda cans, if they were whole and intact, they were recycled; however, if they were damaged or dented in any way they were thrown away.

Why?  This is precisely the question Professor Trudel set out to solve.  This is where he discovered our “perception of usefulness”.  It seems that if something is in any way damaged it is deemed no longer useful.  Those that threw away their dented cans and scraps of paper felt that they could no longer be of use and were therefore deemed garbage.

But this is simply not the case.  The dented or damaged aluminum can is exactly the same can to a recycler as a can that looks like it just came off the shelf.  In fact, there is no limit on the amount of times aluminum can be recycled but if you throw it away it will sit in a landfill for hundreds of years.  Here’s an interesting fact: “Recycling aluminum saves money, energy, and manpower because preparing aluminum products from virgin metal consumes close to 100 times the power required to recycle aluminum. If all aluminum produced is regularly recycled, the energy saved is enough to light up a medium-sized city for close to five years!” (

The same holds true for paper products.  Just because a piece of paper has been ripped or torn it is still paper to the recycler. Keep this in mind before you toss your scrap paper into the trash can: “Each ton (2000 pounds) of recycled paper can save 17 trees, 380 gallons of oil, three cubic yards of landfill space, 4000 kilowatts of energy, and 7000 gallons of water. This represents a 64% energy savings, a 58% water savings, and 60 pounds less of air pollution!” (

Please bear in mind that this does not hold true for all products.  Broken glass, for instance, is not recyclable; it can cause serious problems in the recycling process.  And not all numbers of plastic are accepted at all recycling facilities; make sure your facility accepts the number plastic you want to recycle before you throw it in your bin.

Just because your can or piece of paper may not look like it is ready for recycling does not mean it isn’t.  After all, a can is a can and paper is paper no matter what you do to them.

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