How Does Psychology Play a Role in Recycling Bin Contamination?

Effects of Number and Location of Bins on Plastic Recycling at a University

Authors: Ryan T. O’Connor, Dorothea C. Lerman, Jennifer N. Fritz, and Henry B. Hodde (2010)

Background/Summary: The proportion of plastic bottles that consumers placed in appropriate recycling receptacles rather than trash bins was examined across 3 buildings, Building A, B, and C, on a university campus. Building A had five trash cans and one recycling bin. Building B, which was the biggest of the three buildings, had five trash cans and one recycling bin. Lastly, Building C had two trash cans and zero recycling bins. They built on previous research to increase recycling by controlling the number of recycling bins with a variety of conditions and by examining the location of the bins.

Method: Two authors and two graduate students collected the trash and recycling bins every day at 7 pm. In Buildings A and B, the old gray recycling bins were replaced with new blue ones in order to determine if manipulating the appearance of the bins would influence recycling behavior. Next, in all three buildings, the number of recycling bins in hallways and common areas were increased. Lastly, recycling bins were placed in each of the classrooms of all three buildings. Plastic bottles were scored as either ‘‘plastic in trash container’’ or ‘‘plastic in recycling container.’’ The total number of plastic bottles in the targeted recycling bins for each building was divided by the total plastic in the targeted area of each building to obtain a percentage of plastic in the proper receptacle.

Results: Manipulating the appearance or number of recycling bins in common areas did not increase recycling. People recycled substantially more plastic bottles when the recycling bins were located in classrooms (see table below for more data). Furthermore, the average number of plastic bottles placed in the trash bins each week decreased!

Recommendation: Most students buy their bottled drinks from vending machines, but it is not found to be useful to place bins where the purchase was made. Rather, it is more advantageous to place bins where consumption occurs, which, for students, happens to be the classroom. Placing bins in classrooms creates a convenient means of recycling.

Percentage of Plastic Bottles Counted

Figure 1. The percentage of plastic bottles counted in recycling bins each week in Buildings A, B, and C (O'Connor et al, 2010).

The Role of Memory in Understanding and Encouraging Recycling Behavior

Author: Susan E. Heckler (2006)

Background/Summary: This article discusses the role of memory with regards to two aspects of recycling behavior: First, how people learn why to recycle, and second how people remember when and how to recycle. 

Method: A few common methods used to address recycling behavior are first mentioned and discussed: media exposure, incentives, and convenience. Mass media messages can be helpful to overcome the public’s lack of knowledge about recycling, incentives can produce short-term changes in recycling behavior, and reminder information can drastically increase household recycling. 

Results: Although monetary incentives can induce short-term recycling behavior, the behavior stopped when the incentives were removed. The research into memory that was reviewed in this article suggests that a crucial aspect in developing messages about why to recycle is that the message must be personally relevant to the audience being addressed. These messages showed increase participant's commitment to recycling. Furthermore, memory research has shown the importance of providing external memory aids when the behavior to be performed is new. This study suggests that it is beneficial to place reminder tags in a highly visible location that would incorporate the same message characteristcs as previously described. 

Recommendation: It is important in using reminders to have specific messages targeted at specific people. Someone living near a landfill should be targeted with the importance of recycling in regard to landfills. It is therefore valuable to develop a personal connection with the targeted audience by addressing an issue that is local and close to home, identify how recycling activities impact the audience personally, and understand the audience's views of those implications.

Involuntary Attention and Distractibility as Evaluated with Event-Related Brain Potentials

Authors: Carles Escera, Kimmo Alho, Erich Schroger and Istvan Winkler (2000) 

Background/Summary: This article analyzes event-related brain potential studies to study how deviant and novel sounds and signs distract an unexpected person’s brain. The authors of this article also discuss how the human brain views voluntary stimuli as repetitive or distracting.

Method: The use of auditory-auditory and auditory-visual models were studied to assess abnormal distractibility in the brain among several test groups, especially patients suffering from head injuries and alcoholism. Comparing these models to models with standard tones allowed the brains reaction to varying stimuli to be measured. The brain was also studied among individual volunteers who had reported a head problem to measure the reaction time of the brain to many auditory and visual tasks.

Results: When an irrelevant and distracting event occurs during a person’s normal routine, the person’s brain is more likely to be stimulated following the distracting event, causing them to pay attention (to the recycling bins). The more complex and novel a sound is, the more likely a person’s brain is to be drawn away from their current task and attracted to the unattended stimuli. Both visual and auditory events will cause appropriate distractions although sound tends to cause more substantial stimuli. 

Recommendation: In order to grab people's attention, and refocus it on the recycling bins, unique and novel sounds should be played using speakers and sensors placed in the recycling bins. Every time a pedestrian comes within a certain distance of the bins, the sensor would trigger the speakers to play a repeated sound, such as the sound of birds chirping in a natural environment and at a certain pitch to grab their attention. The sounds may be played for a certain length of time, and then allow for people to refocus their attention on instructions which provide them with easy-to-understand information regarding proper recycleables.

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