Jesse Catlin of Washington State University Tri-Cities and Yitong Wang of Tsinghua University suggest that the option of recycling may lead consumers to use more resources than they would otherwise use when there is no option of recycling available. Their proposition is the result of two experiments conducted at a university in the western United States–one a laboratory experiment and the other a field experiment
The authors conclude that the findings agree with much other research on the unintended consequences of recycling programs. Other studies have shown that people engage in “green” behaviors to alleviate guilt and justify subsequent non–”green” behaviors. For example, someone who recycles may rationalize taking a higher-pollution mode of transportation. The authors conclude that consumers use recycling as a “get-out-of-jail-free card,” enabling them to use as many resources they please as long as they recycle the waste.
REAL-WORLD IMPLICATIONS This study has major implications for consumers, policy makers, and “green” marketers. Recycling may not be as harmless of an environmentally-friendly endeavor as we may think. Because we subconsciously justify using more materials when recycling options are available, we end up demanding more energy usage in the production of those additional resources. The additional production of materials we feel justified in using indiscreetly takes a toll on the environment as well.
“Green” marketers, it would seem, have the upper hand on this one. As long as consumers use recycling as a justification to use more resources, producers of “recyclable” products are likely to sell more of those products.
As consumers, if we truly want to have a positive impact on the environment, we need to recognize that recycling should not be used as a license for greater and more careless consumption. If we want to save the planet, we will pay just as much attention to how much materials we are using in total as we do to the amount that we are recycling.
Policy makers need to be aware of the negative unintended consequences of recycling in the form of increased resource usage. In addition to recycling programs, initiatives related to reducing total usage of resources might also be worth considering.