People avoid recycling damaged products

Take a sheet of paper and rip it into pieces. Will you throw those scraps in the recycling bin or the garbage?

Researchers have found that people tend to trash products that have been somehow modified during use — for example, torn or dented. If the product still looks relatively untouched, they’re more likely to recycle it.

To reach this conclusion, the team first analyzed the contents of recycling and garbage bins in 22 faculty assistant offices at a university. On average, assistants threw 1.95 small scraps of paper but only 1.27 large sheets of paper in the garbage. In contrast, they recycled 5.27 large pieces of paper and only 1.18 small pieces.

The team then gave paper to 150 undergraduate students. Some students were asked to cut the paper into pieces, while others left the paper whole. Then the researchers recorded whether the participants recycled or threw out the paper at the end of the exercise. More than 80 percent of the students with whole sheets recycled the paper, while only about 45 percent of the students with cut-up sheets recycled the scraps.

In a similar experiment with aluminum cans, the researchers found that students were more likely to recycle a regular-sized soda can than a small one. And they were more likely to recycle cans that had not been dented.

People may throw out modified items because the changes make the product seem less useful, the researchers say in the Journal of Consumer Research. But the team did find a way to counteract this effect. When students were asked to list possible ways to use scraps of paper — such as doodling or making origami — the percentage of participants who later recycled the fragments nearly doubled. Roberta Kwok | 28 August 2013

Source: R. Trudel and J.J. Argo. 2103. The effect of product size and form distortion on consumer recycling behavior. Journal of Consumer Research doi: 10.1086/671475.

Image © Alexander Mak | Shutterstock

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