During an experiment, marketing professor Remi Trudel noticed a pattern in what his volunteers were recycling versus throwing in the garbage. He then went through his colleagues' trash and recycling bins at Boston University for more data.
He found the same pattern, says NPR's Shankar Vedantam: "Whole sheets of paper typically went in the recycling, but paper fragments went in the trash."
Same type of paper, different shapes, different bins.
Trudel and fellow researcher Jennifer Argo conducted experiments to figure out why that might be. Volunteers received full pieces of paper as well as fragments, and they also received cans of soda.
"After the volunteers had drunk the soda, when the cans were intact, the cans went in the recycling," Vedantam tells Morning Edition host David Greene. "But if the cans were dented or crushed in any way, the volunteers ended up putting those crushed cans in the trash."
Trudel and Argo developed a theory, which has to do with how we perceive a product's utility.
"When a product is sufficiently distorted or changed in size or form, consumers perceive it as less useful," Trudel says. "And when they perceive it as less useful, they're more likely to throw it in the garbage, as opposed to recycle it."
Vedantam describes it as following an "unconscious rule of thumb."
"After we finish using a product, we somehow evaluate, does the product still look like it could be useful? So a can that isn't dented still looks like a can; it could conceivably still hold soda in it, and so we think of it as being useful," he says.
We have internalized the idea that "useful things go in the recycling, and useless things go in the trash."
Things that could have been recycled actually make up a significant portion of what's thrown in the garbage every year. The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that paper and paperboard accounted for 28 percent of waste generated in 2011. Plastics and metals made up an additional 22 percent.
Trudel says the first step in changing these habits is to be aware of our bias about usefulness. He's running experiments to tell people how much energy individual cans are worth, so that something that may seem useless is actually valuable.
"He's also thinking of putting these big red frowny faces on the trash cans as a way to get people to stop for just one second and make a conscious decision," Vedantam says.
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
OK, so I'm in the studio, and I'm reading from a script right now. It's printed out right here on a sheet of paper. And when I finish with this sheet of paper, there's always the question of what, exactly, I'm going to do with it. Will I throw it in the trashcan, or will I put it in the recycling bin?
And in the case of this sheet of paper, I'm probably going to be extra careful because NPR's social science correspondent Shankar Vedantam is in the room, and he's here to talk about an unconscious bias that apparently affects our recycling behavior. Hey, Shankar.
SHANKAR VEDANTAM, BYLINE: Hi, David.
GREENE: OK. So what is this bias you're talking about?
VEDANTAM: You know, David, I think what I'm going to do is I'm actually going to show you the bias instead of tell you about it.
VEDANTAM: I brought a prop in. I have a pair of scissors here.
GREENE: That's frightening.
VEDANTAM: And I'm gonna cut this piece of paper into little snips here.
GREENE: I hope you don't need that.
VEDANTAM: I'm just littering the studio here. And I want you to look at all these little bits of paper here and tell me - now the whole sheet you would probably recycle, but would you actually put these little bits in the trash or would you put them in the recycling?
GREENE: I would say I would probably crumble them up and just throw them in the trash can.
VEDANTAM: Now, I think a lot of people apparently do this. I spoke with a marketing professor at Boston University. His name is Remi Trudel. He was conducting an experiment some time ago and he realized that when he gave his volunteers full sheets of paper, they would put them in the recycling after they used them. But when he gave them paper fragments, they would end up putting them in the trash.
GREENE: Any theories as to why I might take little crinkles of paper and put them in the trash can and not want to recycle them? Because they are paper.
VEDANTAM: So Trudel and his colleague Jennifer Argo conducted a series of experiments to answer precisely that question, David. They gave volunteers sheets of paper or fragments and they found that the sheets of paper went in the recycling, the fragments went in the trash. They also gave the volunteers cans of soda and after the volunteers had drunk the soda, when the cans were intact, the cans went in the recycling.
But if the cans were dented or crushed in any way, the volunteers ended up putting those crushed cans in the trash. So Trudel and Argo came up with a theory of what was happening.
REMI TRUDEL: When a product is sufficiently distorted or changed in size and form, consumers perceive it as less useful. And when they perceive it as less useful, they're more likely to throw it in the garbage, as opposed to recycle it. So that's what we think is going on.
GREENE: OK, Shankar, I think this is actually making sense. I have my own prop here. It's the diet Coke I often have in the studio. And the bottle is still fully intact. And I think I would - my instinct would be to put this in the recycling bin. But if I, you know, crinkled it up when I was done with it, I would probably throw it in the trash. Why?
VEDANTAM: Yeah, so Trudel and Argo think this is actually because of a heuristic. You know, we're following this unconscious rule of thumb, which is after we finish using a product, we somehow evaluate, does the product still look like it could be useful? So a can that isn't dented still looks like a can; it could conceivably still hold soda in it, and so we think of it as being useful.
And our heuristic says useful things go in the recycling, and useless things go in the trash.
GREENE: Even though we're talking about the same amount of plastic, the same amount of aluminum, I mean it makes a huge difference in how much is recycled.
VEDANTAM: Exactly. I mean two billion tons of stuff goes in the trash every year. And the EPA estimates that in the United States alone, 30 percent of the stuff that goes in the trash is just paper, which could be recycled.
GREENE: OK. So is there anything that researchers might be able to do or consider to help, you know, send a message that even if things are in tiny little pieces or all ripped apart or crinkled, that they should put them in the recycling bin?
VEDANTAM: Well, Trudel thinks you should be aware of this bias. If you're putting stuff in the trash that could be recycled, it could have huge consequences. I have to say that after I interviewed Trudel, I have started to pay a lot of attention of what I'm putting in the trash and what I'm putting in the recycling.
Trudel tells me that it's changed everything that he does in his household. He's doubled the amount of recycling, halved the amount of trash. He even told me what he does with soup cans.
TRUDEL: What I used to do is I used to tear the label off the aluminum can and recycle the can but toss the label into the garbage. Now I recycle that little label, right? 'Cause now it's like that little label can still be recycled as paper.
GREENE: You know, it's interesting, Shankar, because normally you think about teaching about recycling, the key is to raise awareness about the environment. But this is something that is very different but potentially equally as important.
VEDANTAM: Yeah, I think it's sort of bringing psychology to bear on sort of these everyday decisions. Trudel is actually running a series of experiments right now at Boston University where he's trying to communicate the sense that this product that looks useless actually does have value. He's also thinking of putting these big red frowny faces on the trash cans as a way to get people to stop for just one second and make a conscious decision.
GREENE: Interesting stuff as always, Shankar. Just promise me you're not going to start going through the trash in here.
VEDANTAM: I just did that this morning, David. I'm sorry.
GREENE: Fantastic. We'll look forward do what you found. Shankar, thanks for coming in, as always.
VEDANTAM: You're welcome, David.
GREENE: Shankar Vedantam often joins us to talk about social science research. You can find him on Twitter @HiddenBrain, and while you're at it find this program @MorningEdition, @NPRInskeep, @NPRGreene. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.