Recycling Nudges

Over the years, psychologists have explored how Behaviour Science can both positively and negatively influence people’s recycling habits.   This research has highlighted several key biases, and we will briefly discuss a couple.      

Ownership:  We’ve all had our name misspelled on a coffee cup at some point, but did you know that people are significantly more likely to recycle this cup if their name is spelled correctly (compare recycling at 46% with correct spelling, 26% with no name, and 24% with misspelled name).  According to researchers, this suggests a reluctance to discard something that we feel ownership over. 

Social Norms: A study from the 1990s observed littering behaviour in 2 different settings:  a clean parking lot and a lot full of litter.   Participants observed a man throw a flyer on the ground and then they found a similar flyer on the windshield of their car.  In the littered parking lot, 54% of people threw the flyer on the ground.  In the clean parking lot, only 6% littered.  The underlying assumption is that we tend to model our behaviour after what is socially accepted, and deviations from this norm are easily identified. 

Reframing:  Ever seen the signs in your hotel room encouraging you to use reuse your towels?  In 2008, researchers wanted to know what would happen if they rephrased the sign.  Moving away from the standard ecological message, researchers saw a 26% increase in reuse when they said ‘most guests in the hotel reused their towels’ and 33% increase when they referenced guests who had previously stayed in that particular room. 

How does the appearance of an object impact its likelihood of being recycled?  How important are the shapes of trashcans? Can too many recycling bins actually encourage over-consumption?  Check out this article for more examples of Behaviour Science in recycling.