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Recycling seen as ‘get out of jail free card’

United States/China – Consumers faced with the opportunity to recycle are likely to increase their resource consumption compared to those who aren’€™t in the position to do so, states a new study entitled ‘€˜Recycling gone bad’€™ conducted by the University of California and the Tsinghua University in Beijing.

Recently published in the ‘€˜Journal of Consumer Psychology’€™, the report questions the desirability of making recycling more available, arguing that it makes consumers ‘€˜more wasteful’€™. This is especially the case if it concerns a product for which they are not required to pay directly, such as items available at a public facility.

Researchers Jesse R. Catlin and Yitong Wang came to this conclusion by doing an experiment which called for a group of 44 people to evaluate a new pair of scissors by cutting some of the provided paper. When divided into two groups, one with a recycling bin and one with only a waste bin present, it soon became clear that the subjects in close proximity to the recycling bin consumed significantly more paper. A similar test in rest rooms produced exactly the same result: consumers used far more paper towels once a recycling bin had been introduced.

This type of behaviour, explains Mr Catlin, takes root in the belief that recycling serves as a way to ‘€˜justify increased consumption’€™ as it actively reduces the ‘€˜guilt associated with consuming and disposing of a product’€™. He refers to this notion as a sort of ‘€˜get out of jail free card’€™, rendering more extreme consumption of material socially acceptable.

‘€˜Our findings indicate that merely emphasising the positive aspects of recycling and enhancing the availability of recycling options may not be sufficient to save natural resources, or at least doing this does not always yield the maximum environmental benefit,’€™ the researchers state.

According to Mr Wang, consumers might act differently if they knew more about what it takes to keep a sustainable industry running. ‘€˜Though consumers are well informed that recycling is beneficial to the environment, the environmental costs of recycling, such as the water, energy, etc. used in recycling facilities, are less salient,’€™ he says.

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