Is "trash" keeping us from recycling?

Reader Jason Bade writes in with a comment about the power of labels on decision making about recycling.

Oftentimes, we are given two options when it comes to disposing of our refuse: “Recycle” and “Trash.” When one approaches a recycling receptacle, one is confronted by a set of rules that are rather easy to break, even if by accident (for example, I can recycle a plastic milk bottle, but not a plastic soap bottle). Because we, as humans, are lazy, we tend toward the option that carries with it no burden of rules–no risk of being wrong. There are no rules to throwing stuff in the trash, so it is the naturally appealing option. How, then, can we change this choice architecture to eliminate (or at least equalize) the risk of each option?

The reason this situation exists in the first place is that these choices are not mutually exclusive. In theory, aluminum can could be put in either receptacle without breaking any “rules.” Although I am unsure of this empirically, I would venture that a change in garbage can lingo could increase recycling rates, if it were more specific and put the choice in absolute terms. Take the label “trash,” or “garbage,” which implies “everything we don’t want.” If we relabeled garbage cans as “Non-Recyclables” (or the trash cans next to compost bins as “Non-Compostables”), it might make people think a lot harder about what to put in which bins. Recycling bins could still be labeled “Recyclables” but trash bins might also be labeled “Non-Recyclables.” This not only would give every single discardable item only one legitimate destination, but it would also put the decision to recycle on par with throwing it away.

Addendum: Jason is an undergraduate at Stanford who is starting a group called BEAST–-Behavioral Economists at Stanford. BEAST’s purpose, he writes, is “to investigate behavioral problems, implement controlled `nudge’ experiments around campus and in the greater community to remedy them, and then publish the results online and in the greater community for implementation elsewhere.” The group isn’t up and running yet, but if you’re at Stanford and interested in nudging, try and check it out.

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  • Melissa

    This absolutely makes sense. When we were living in Germany south of Munich, recycling was mandatory and carefully monitored (ie if you mess it up, they left the bag behind for you to sort out). Every household we visited had 4 recycling receptacles: paper, metal, plastic & compost. The local government provided free bags for these items and everything else went into a black wheelie bin (which was very small and collected every 2 weeks) called “problem abfall” – ie problem trash. Call it what it is. By the time my kids were 2, the were asking, “which bin mom” and by 4 or 5 pretty much knew how to sort already. We’ve maintained this system in the States at home and feel constantly frustrated in public when we encounter situations where recycling isn’t available – and often end up just packing it home and recycling it there.

  • mcjacobson

    While reading this, I thought of Chicago’s blue bag program, which requires people to buy bags from the city in order to get recycle pick up. If you run out, no recycling until you buy more. While this system exists, I don’t think changing the names of the bins will have an effect (while it could somewhere that doesn’t have a recycling cost).

    Implementing the REVERSE of Chicago’s system would also make a big impact, but could be considered more of a “shove” than a “nudge.” The solution Jason suggested seems like a gentler nudge.

  • lfh

    the california academy of sciences has implemented something similar to your suggestion. they call trash “landfill”.

  • Annabel McAleer

    In my office, the recycling bin is labelled RECYCLING, while the rubbish bin is labelled LANDFILL. It was suggested by a colleague (and mum of 4) who uses the same system in her house. It definitely makes you think twice about putting something in the landfill bin – until the novelty wears off and you stop noticing the labels, but hopefully by then habits are improved.

    Using a much bigger bin for recycling and a small one for landfill also helps.

  • Collin Li

    Why not stick negative rules on the trashcan as well? Commonly-mistaken items that cannot be recycled should be directed towards the recycling bin.

  • LJS

    Manhattan uses a similar incentive structure. Paper in clear bags, bottles and the like in blue, and trash in black. but somehow they must check if you’re trashing recyclables, cause my building had a ticket (like a parking ticket) on the front door for two violations.

  • weee recycling

    I think as more local authorities move toward bi weekly general waste collections this will increase the amount of waste recycled, however lik eyou say contamination is still a big issue. I wonder how plastic meat trays, milk cartons and cans etc… are treated if they remain unwashed before being placed in the bin. I always make a point of washing everything out.

    Also make sure your electrical waste, or WEEE recycling is kept out of the general waste!

  • LC

    The city of Bloomington, Indiana nudges folks toward recycling by requiring residents to attach $2 trash stickers to each garbage can placed curbside, whereas recyclables are collected at no cost. Folks can throw everything in the garbage, but can also reduce their need for the stickers by recycling as much as possible.