The psychology of recycling — yes, that’s a thing — is pretty fascinating. Human behavior can be influenced (nudged) in many subtle ways, including the way we encounter things in our day to day environments.
Like, let’s say, the size, color, and label on a bin.
You’ve probably noticed that bins in public are color coded in pretty standard ways — with bins for landfill-bound items typically being black or black & red, while bins for recycling are usually blue or green. The idea, of course, is that community members will associate the color with the type of refuse they are tossing out and select the correct bin for the type(s) of waste they are generating. Some dedicated communities and work places break down the colors even more, to help consumers pre-sort and increase the likelihood that waste gets recycled instead of ending up in landfills.
In places where that isn’t the case, though, we’ve noticed that a lot of people pretty liberally ignore the psychological suggestion made by the mere color of the bins, tossing recycling in the rubbish bin and rubbish in the recycling bin.
The size of the bins can send a psychological message to consumers and household members, of course. Though we don’t love the plastic film lining the bins, we do very much like the bin arrangement in the photo above because the much-smaller “garbage” tells employees in this warehouse that most items should find their way into one of the much-larger sorted recycling bins.
We like it when bin size sends psychological messages about what should occur, but we have noticed that it’s rare to see this. In homes and businesses, the rubbish bin and the recycling bin are often the same size or, in lots of cases, the rubbish bin is still much larger than the recycling bin. In our own municipality, the curbside garbage bin provided by city waste management is much larger than the recycling bin, even though we rarely fill the garbage one even a quarter full by any given collection date and our recycling one is filled to the brim every week.
But let’s talk about words.
The word “trash” is actually incredibly vague. It’s super easy to toss something into a bin labeled “trash” or “waste” or “rubbish” without even momentarily pausing to consider what that means for the item we’re contributing to the bin.
“General Waste” is euphemistic. “Landfill” is not.
A bin labeled “rubbish” or “trash” or “waste” — or worse, not labeled at all — allows people the wishful fantasy that something will magically happen to the item(s) they are tossing into the bin. Maybe the trash sorting fairies will take care of it? Maybe it will be incinerated? Maybe it will just disappear? Bins with no labels or bins with euphemistic labels allow people to continue indulging in the harmful fantasy that the garbage they produce just goes away once it leaves their hands.
But when people encounter a bin unabashedly labeled LANDFILL, they are confronted with reality. No sugar-coating or vague hopefulness is offered. The bin is letting them know — whatever you put in here is not getting recycled or somehow magically disappearing. It is going to go directly into a landfill, where it will contribute to the earth’s enormous waste problem.
Call it a Landfill Bin
We’d like to see all landfill-bound bins labeled LANDFILL and referenced in our daily conversation as “landfill bin” rather than “trash” or “garbage” or “rubbish.” It’s not difficult to find labels for bins, and retraining ourselves to reference the “landfill bin” when speaking about it is just a matter of deciding it’s important and worth the effort to change that verbal habit. And, of course, acknowledging the fact that the words we use really do have an impact on how we think about things and how we behave.
In our homes, in our communities, and in our workplaces — we could all use the consistent reminder that waste we generate goes someplace when we are done with it.
[header photo | Shane Rounce]