Damaged Goods

People avoid recycling torn and dented stuff

Researchers have found that people tend to trash products that have been modified somehow 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 into the regular 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 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.

—Roberta Kwok

R. Trudel and J.J. Argo. 2013. The effect of product size and form distortion on consumer recycling behavior. Journal of Consumer Research doi:10.1086/671475.

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