Just Denting an Aluminum Can Makes People Less Likely to Recycle It

Cutting up paper, too.

Damaged goods
Damaged goods Josh Kenzer

The United States creates more waste than any other country in the world (although Canada’s worse, per person). And much of what Americans throw away every year could have been recycled. For example, here’s the EPA on paper, which most people know needn’t go in the trash:

Paper makes up nearly 30 percent of all wastes Americans throw away each year, more than any other material. Americans recycled about 63 percent of the paper they used in 2010.

People have their reasons for not recycling. Their city may not pick up recyclables. They may not know that a certain piece of plastic, paper or aluminum can be recycled. They may just be lazy. But also, scientists discovered, they tend not to recycled damaged goods.

Why is all that paper—almost 40 percent of what Americans use—landing in the dumpster rather than the recycling bin? The authors of a new study hypothesized that looks might have something to do with it.

To test this, they recruited 150 undergraduates and gave them a pair of scissors and a piece of paper. They asked some of the students to cut their paper into little bits to “evaluate the scissors,” while the others were told to just sit there. Then, the researchers asked the students to clean up their paper mess on their way out of the room.

More than 80 percent of  the students who had not cut up their paper placed it into the recycling bin, which was situated beside the garbage can. But just 44 percent of the cutters put their paper bits into the recycling bin.

In a separate experiment, the authors arrived at similar findings with aluminum can, another obvious recycling candidate:

We also find that aluminum cans are more likely to be trashed when their form has been distorted and that perceived usefulness mediates this relationship between size, form distortion, and disposal behavior.

We have posited and demonstrated that size and form distortion increases the likelihood that a product will be trashed because it is perceived to be less useful and that usefulness is a category-defining attribute for both recyclables and trash.

If this study is any indication of real-world behavior, for many people, a product that looks icky or broken registers as garbage with no further use. Maybe it’s time for a “Recyclables come in all shapes and sizes” public awareness campaign.

More from Smithsonian.com:

One Day Everything Could Be Recycled 
A Photographer Turns Her Eye to the Recycling Process