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Recycling opportunities 'may increase consumption'

Experiments cast doubt on recyclers’ motives, psychologists say.

Researchers at Washington State University ran two experiments, the results of which suggested that paper consumption may increase when users plan to recycle the waste.

The results, published in a Journal of Consumer Psychology paper Recycling Gone Bad: when the option to recycle increases resource consumption, challenged the idea that consumption is independent of opportunities to recycle, the researchers found.

In the first experiment, two groups of people, who thought they were evaluating pairs of scissors, were asked to cut up as much paper as they could during a session.

One group disposed of the cuttings in an ordinary wastebasket, but the second group had both a wastebasket and a recycling container and cut up nearly three times as much paper as did the first group.

In the second test, a wastebasket in a men’s wash room was monitored for 15 days to determine the number of paper towels deposited.

It was then equipped with a recycling container as well as a wastebasket, and both receptacles were checked for another 15 days. During the latter phase, paper use rose by 14%.

“Rather than prior decisions guiding subsequent choices, we find evidence that the disposal option available for the product currently being used that can ‘license’ the amount consumed,” researchers led by Professor Jesse R Catlin found.

They did not go into why this behaviour occurred but suggested possibilities including that the option to recycle may reduce the guilt associated with consuming and disposing of a product, “which therefore increases consumption through mitigation of guilt associated with (over) consumption”.

Stuart Pohler, recovered paper sector manager at the Confederation of Paper Industries, said the findings could equally apply to other recyclable or compostable materials.

“I’m not convinced that the study has adequately addressed the nuances between relatively infrequent, low-level ‘freebie’ resource provision and far more indicative market-driven consumption behaviour,” he said.

“People are likely to consume more when something’s on offer whether it be free paper to cut up, or at a restaurant offering an ‘eat as much as you like’ deal.

“Both tests are based on the material being provided without any cost implication to the consumer whereas the overwhelming majority of consumption decisions are purchase-led.”

Pohler urged the researchers to “revisit the experiment on the basis of a more ‘real world’ scenario whereby a cost cost/benefit to the consumer is more readily identifiable”.

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