Okay, first thing first. Recycling is not the way to go. We need to reduce the amount of waste we generate first. Strategies like carrying a reusable mug, metal water bottle, and cloth grocery bags are simple places to start on the reduce front. Other strategies like buying clothes that last longer (both fashion wise and durability) and only getting the food you can actually eat help as well. One reduce strategy I find most people haven’t thought of is taking your own reusable containers to carry out your leftovers from a restaurant.
Next is reuse. Can you fix your bike rather than buy a new one? Some argue that one fits under a fourth R of repair. What about purchasing the new furniture used via garage sales and online resell sites? There’s also the growing sharing economy where people participate in lending programs through community groups or public libraries.
So, when we finally get to recycle we should find things that are truly at the end of their life span, at least in their current form. Recycling has been pretty big news in the last while, because for many years people, North Americans among them have been happily tossing their not particularly clean recycling into specially marked bags (or bins) and thinking they had done their part for a better environment. Their recycling is carried away and they assume that everything will be okay. That was until China decided to stop buying (that’s right our recycling even generated income) our waste, because let’s be honest, recycling is just waste with a feel good attached to it. For a great overview of this change check out the podcast 99% Invisible episode: The National Sword.
So assuming that we start doing more of the reducing, reusing, and repairing, and that we fix our recycling so that we can actually recycle how can we get more people to want to recycle?
Winterich, Nenkov, and Gonzales (2019) found that in a number of different contexts, from tailgate parties to dorm residence halls people were significantly more likely to recycle if the received a specific message that encouraged them to think about how their products could be transformed, instead of a more generic recycling is important type message.
This is an interesting finding, particularly as we explore the new reality. Is it the best plan to continue to hide our recycling and outsource it to other countries or should companies be required to have an end plan for the products they make and promote this plan when you first purchase the product?
It seems like this piece of info about human behaviour is an important one as more and more people, companies, and governments recognize the importance of zero waste. But just remember that before your empty plastics become a warm jacket they should be reused first.