by: Leslie Jones


The term “Recycling Bias” refers to the propensity of people to throw larger or full sheets of paper into the recycling bin while bits and scraps of paper went into the trash.  The same was found to be true of crushed cans or plastic bottles. Empty but intact cans or bottles went into the recycling bin while their crushed or dented counterparts were destined for the landfill.

Why does this seem to hold true so often? “Marketing Professor Remi Truedel from Boston University conducted the research, and according to the NPR story noted:

"When a product is sufficiently distorted or changed in size or 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."

According to this same story, the EPA estimates that paper and paperboard made up 28% of the waste in 2011, while plastic and metal equaled another 22 %. Truedel asserts that we can change our habits by becoming more aware of our own biases, and by reconsidering what we think garbage is.”*

In study after study, people were asked to cut paper into several different sized pieces and were given cans of soda while they worked.  After a sufficient amount of time, they were asked to clean up. Invariably, any of the full or larger pieces of paper that were left, along with empty but perfect soda cans went into the recycling bin provided; the dented or crushed cans and smaller scraps of paper brushed from the tables ended up, as predicted, in the trash.  When interviewing these people afterward, all were asked the same question: “Why did you feel that the dented cans or tiny scraps of paper were any less useful in the recycling process?” Most answers had to do with their perception of the scraps.  Other answers mostly had to do with the smaller bits of paper being a pain to deal with and were therefore considered trash.

What about dirty or stained paper?  The same perceptions seem to apply when dealing with paper, even whole pieces, that may have had coffee spilled on it or may have been found in a parking lot after being stepped on or run over by a car.  These items are still very useful and can be recycled using today’s state-of-the-art recycling processes such as the ones used by Recycling Works in Elkhart.

As we address the ever-frequent Recycling Education, “Recycling Bias” should most certainly be defined and dismissed as being a perception or a myth.  "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."**

So remember the term “Recycling Bias” next time you have a crumpled sticky note, a torn off end of an envelope, or a crushed soda can in your hand.  Evaluate these items differently when deciding where to ultimately put them.  They don’t have to be perfect to be useful.