Repeat after me: glass, metal, paper, plastic
March 14, 2013 8:22 AM   Subscribe

How can I get the people around me to be more conscientious about recycling?

I find that a lot of people around me, including family, friends, and colleagues, are less conscientious than I am about recycling. For example, sometimes they'll throw a plastic cup in the recycling bin but other times inexplicably they'll throw it in the trash bin. I have trouble understanding that behavior because the way my brain works, there's consistency: either it's a recyclable or not, and I always treat it the same way. Are these people being lazy, or they don't care, or they are confused about what's recyclable so on different days their uncertainty leads them to different actions? I have mentioned my observation to such people before, but it doesn't seem to register, or if it does, it doesn't stick. If any of you are like that, or have had interactions with people like that, please help me understand what is going on in their minds and what I can say to them to help them have more consistently environmentally-friendly habits in the future.
posted by Dansaman to Science & Nature (33 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
They probably just don't care as much about the issue as you do, and lecturing them about it is unlikely to change that.
posted by amro at 8:24 AM on March 14, 2013 [15 favorites]

When I was in college, there was a girl I knew who walked around at parties as a self-styled recycling monitor, loudly pointing out when someone failed to recycle a beer can and generally harshing everyone's buzz. I think people sort of react against that kind of policing out of annoyance, frankly. So don't be like that girl.

I do sympathize with you wanting there to be consistency. My husband is super thorough about recycling every tiny scrap of everything and it drives him nuts if I fail to put a takeout drink cup in the recycling. I make mistakes (and your peers may have the same issue) because a lot of things are not obviously recyclable, and my aging eyes may not spot the recycle symbol on the bottom of a clear plastic item.
posted by little mouth at 8:33 AM on March 14, 2013 [4 favorites]

I don't know about you, but where I grew up there was no recycling. In my current neighborhood (in Chicago, but a poor area) there is no recycling. In my office, there IS recycling.

Most of the time, I just don't think about it, because I'm not used to it. Trash is trash is trash, it all goes to the same place, just toss it in the bin. Occasionally, if I've got a lot of one type of item (like, a lot of paper, or a lot of cardboard, or a lot of glass bottles, whatever) that I'm throwing away, I stop and think, geez, it would be nice to recycle this. But that would require me packing it up, hauling it down the stairs, sticking it in my car, driving around for a few miles in traffic trying to find a recycling bin, then hefting it all in the bin. Maybe it makes me a bad person, but yeah--it's a lot of work, I'm lazy, and I don't feel like spending my precious free time hauling around garbage.

But when I'm at work, the bin is right there, right next to the garbage, and I end up recycling most stuff that doesn't require extra effort. (Yogurt cups? I'm not going to be assed to walk into the kitchen, rinse it out at the sink, then stick it in the recycling. Sorry.)

What I'm trying to get at is this: make it AS EASY AS POSSIBLE for people to recycle and hope that they recycle. Put lots of bins around. Offer to be the person to haul the recycling to the center (or wherever it goes) so other people don't have to think about it. If you see someone with a pop can in their hand heading for the trash, you can say something like, "you can recycle that!" and hope they do it. But the second you start being all GUYS YOU NEED TO RECYCLE WHAT'S WRONG WITH YOU is the second you become that guy. Don't be that guy. I mean, it's great that you care and all, but the way to win people over to your side is to make it easy. Don't hassle folks.
posted by phunniemee at 8:33 AM on March 14, 2013 [1 favorite]

...please help me understand what is going on in their minds...

Nothing. I mean, they don't care about recycling. The concept of "recycling" is not taking up headspace. Will saying anything to them about it work? Probably not. Assuming the recycling knowledge campaign where you live is like it is where I live -- well over a decade (maybe two!) of public service TV ads, mailers, advertisements in public spaces, education in school, etc. -- they know of it, but they just don't give a shit.

(Also, expecting consistency out of people is a lost cause in general. It is not, nor has ever been, a strength of the human being.)
posted by griphus at 8:34 AM on March 14, 2013 [1 favorite]

It is not as important to them. Nothing you say to another adult about their recycling habits will have your desired effect. Instead, put your effort into making recycling as barrier-free for them. If there are limitations (rinse first, pre-sort, not enough recycling containers or located in awkward places) then address those first. Also make sure the recycling is actually being recycled. It really put me off when I discovered my workplace and been taking the carefully rinsed and pre sorted recycled materials and just throwing the contents of the blue bins into regular garbage; they hired an understaffed cleaning firm because they were the cheapest contract.
posted by saucysault at 8:38 AM on March 14, 2013 [1 favorite]

I've found humour can work well. I once designed a poster for my office where I photoshopped an image of our office building part-submerged in water, with a polar bear perched on it if I remember rightly, and a tagline that said something like, if we keep producing waste and not recycling, eventually THIS WILL HAPPEN - WE ARE DOOMED.

It was intentionally hyperbolic and made people laugh because of it. Humour was my way of getting the poster noticed, and upping people's consciousness of the issue even in just a small way.
posted by greenish at 8:42 AM on March 14, 2013 [1 favorite]

Are these people being lazy, or they don't care, or they are confused about what's recyclable so on different days their uncertainty leads them to different actions?

Recycling is not as much of a priority for them as it is for you.

I have mentioned my observation to such people before, but it doesn't seem to register, or if it does, it doesn't stick.

All this will accomplish is reinforce to them that recycling is a priority for you. The problem isn't that they don't understand you or that they're forgetting to care about recycling. The problem here is that recycling is not as much of a priority for them as it is for you, so they don't make as much of an effort. They probably also don't like feeling lectured, so the chances are that they'll be even less likely to make an effort.

please help me understand what is going on in their minds

See above.

and what I can say to them to help them have more consistently environmentally-friendly habits in the future.

You can make recycling easier for them (more blue bins nearby, or whatever), and that may help, but there are no magic words you can say that will make recycling more of a priority for them than it is right now.
posted by FAMOUS MONSTER at 8:45 AM on March 14, 2013 [4 favorites]

I agree 100% on the "barrier free" thoughts. A book I've found very useful in these situations is Fostering Sustainable Behavior, by Doug McKenzie-Mohr. (It's good for any sort of community behavior change or social marketing, not just environmental, but it focuses a lot on that to start with.) You want to change people's behavioral norms so that they'll continue to act in this new way. But you need to approach it carefully and respectfully, because if it seemed natural to them in the first place they'd be doing it already, right?

Conversely, the more gung-ho/pushy/obsessive you seem to them, the more people will dismiss you. I know a woman who was supposed to be the star of a theatrical production but seemed to spend half of every rehearsal collecting people's stray water bottles and digging through trash for cans. Every time she called someone out on recycling, we'd all heave a sigh and say, "Yeeees, Terry..." It took the focus off of the reason for the recycling and put it onto 1) this crazy behavior and 2) this crazy woman, thereby "othering" it even further from what we could do ourselves.
posted by Madamina at 8:52 AM on March 14, 2013 [3 favorites]

I've been in the context where people will often fail to put things in any bin at all, let alone the right recycling bin. The best answer I can come up with is to minimise/remove any extra effort whatsoever that the people have to make to recycle rather than just "throw away". Basically just put (clearly labelled) recycling bins everywhere there are normal bins. So at least the lazy-but-environmentally-friendly can recycle without having to expend any extra physical effort and very minimal extra mental effort.
posted by EndsOfInvention at 8:59 AM on March 14, 2013

You can make recycling easier for them

This is basically it. William James made a big deal in The Will to Believe, that if you want people to change a thing in their lives, a part of their lives, you have to make it a "genuine option" for them. I think about this a lot with people with technology. The solution has to solve a problem for THEM, not for you or for me. So that is where you start. "How does recycling solve a problem for these people?" If you start off just thinking of them as lazy, you could probably turn this around and ask yourself why you don't support whatever is important to them as well and whether they may think of you as lazy on their own pet topics?

James believed that a genuine option had to have a few characteristics. You can read more about that here. But basically there needs to be

- "forced" - a choice point, they have to make a choice, they can't just keep doing what they are doing
- "momentous" - the decision has to have value to them, not like "coke or pepsi" this is why people work in brand loyalty so much
- "living" - both options need to be real options and you want them to choose the one you want

So in many places where people really recycle, there is often social pressure to recycle (people do it, there are ad campaigns telling you to do it, people are scornful if you don't do it), a cost to not recycling (you literally get billed for having recycleables in your trash, trash pickup costs money and recycling pickup is free) and/or an ease of recycling (where ease can mean more bins, "no sort" options or some regular "we pick it up with your trash" system) which all help people fit recycling in with their existing lifestyle which, realistically, is as far as you're going to get most people to go.
posted by jessamyn at 9:02 AM on March 14, 2013 [4 favorites]

Also, it may be that different people have different mental rules than you.

For example, I don't recycle any cardboard that has food waste, like pizza boxes. And our city actually doesn't accept many types of plastic, so even though they look recylclable, they go in the trash.

These are my rules, but there could be others (that can has grease in it; that bottle has cigarette butts; the recycling looks full; i think it wastes too much water to rinse this).

So in the end, there's no way that you can understand their decisionmaking process, and you should just disengage. Make recycling as easy as possible and then let it go.
posted by mercredi at 9:04 AM on March 14, 2013 [1 favorite]

I agree that it would help to make recycling easier for them. But in the end, you have to accept that they can choose whether or not to recycle....and no amount of nagging is going to increase the likelihood of it. (If anything, it will hurt.)
posted by barnoley at 9:05 AM on March 14, 2013

saucy sault is right. Maybe they don't care because they figure it all ends up as garbage anyway.

This is true at the school where I teach. We have endless awareness drives, initiatives, contests for the kids so that they recycle. The poor things even volunteer to sort it by hand to ensure it's right.

At the end of the day, you can see the caretakers empty all this carefully sorted recycling into the garbage bin along with everything else. When I saw that, I stopped recycling at work too.

I think a lot of people may be burned out on Eco issues in general.
posted by The Hyacinth Girl at 9:06 AM on March 14, 2013 [2 favorites]

please help me understand what is going on in their minds

What is going on in my mind is that the environmentalism behind recycling is about economics and resources. Thus, I recycle aluminum and other metals because it is cheaper and less resource-intensive to recycle it than it is to mine ore and smelt it. (aluminum is the most prominent example of this)

The reason I do not recycle paper is the same reason I do not recycle my poop after eating Brussels sprouts: just as my Brussels sprouts came from farms that will grow more for me to eat again, so will tree farms continue to grow trees for paper. That is where the vast majority of paper comes from in my country. So, what is going on in my mind is doing actual good, not just feeling good based on incorrect information. I am reminded of the episode of Penn & Teller's Bullshit where they got people on the street to agree to recycle over ten different classes of refuse, including crap-smeared toilet paper. Many people will uncritically do anything you tell them without question if you say it is "good for the environment".

Putting an aluminum can into a recycling bin doesn't magically make it into a ingot of pure aluminum ready to be used again. It has to be carted away on trucks, processed, sorted, and distributed. In the end, it is often economical wasteful in terms of energy and other resources. If it were really saving resources, we would expect an economic incentive to do it (in other words, the opposite of a fine if you don't recycle). This is why you notice the homeless collecting cans and not old paper.

You wish people would recycle more. I wish people would pray more. However, I do not go into the houses of my friends, family, and colleagues telling them what they should do. So, what you can say to them is "nothing". They don't want to solve your problem for you.
posted by Tanizaki at 9:11 AM on March 14, 2013 [3 favorites]

Here's what's going on in my mind when I don't recycle: "large corporations could do more in a week to reduce energy consumption and recycle more materials than the combined efforts of me and my coworkers over a lifetime. The idea that our individual efforts will save the earth without regulation of industry is misguided at best."

Or something like that. Don't get me started on how much energy it takes to recycle recyclables.

ps: I do recycle most of the time.
posted by vitabellosi at 9:12 AM on March 14, 2013 [10 favorites]

I recycle because I realize there is no magical bottomless pit where trash goes and does no harm. Trash fills otherwise usable land. The "away" in "thrown away" is a pile, and the local trash pile is something I drive by often enough that I can't help cringing at not recycling.

But that's me. I'm not a zealot for recycling, but I do pick things out of trash cans and move them to recycling bins when 1) the recyclable item is near the top, and 2) there is a handy recycling bin. I don't make a show of it, just as I don't flaunt the fact that I pick up litter and take it to a trash can.

Lead by quiet example. Make it easier for people to join in. If someone has a recyclable item and you're close enough to recycle it for them and it's not a hassle for you, politely ask "hey, are you done with that? I can recycle it for you." Don't do it so often that you become the person to pick up other people's recycling items, but quietly show that you care, and you're willing to help.
posted by filthy light thief at 9:19 AM on March 14, 2013 [1 favorite]

I agree that there's not much you can say - making things as convenient as possible does help, in my experience. To try to not make yourself crazy, try to remember it doesn't matter much. Individuals are not the biggest pollutors, and the planet (and the human race) are doomed no matter how much anyone recycles.
posted by agregoli at 9:22 AM on March 14, 2013

Make bigger signs to put at the trash/recycling area with quick lists of what goes where in plain English, especially what should go in the trash bin.

And if there is more than one category of paper, more than one category of metal, and/or more than one category of plastic, then get rid of all but one of each and allow the rest to be thrown away. I will never sort recyclables into more than four categories. Maybe I'm a dick, but that's the recycling company's job, not mine.
posted by General Tonic at 9:24 AM on March 14, 2013

Don't get me started on how much energy it takes to recycle recyclables.

Is recycling energy efficient? Answer: mostly, but even when it's not, energy isn't the only thing worth saving.

I don't mean to pick on an individual here, but to provide a response to the question at large. I feel that the notion that recycling can be a waste of energy discounts the energy and resource costs involved with creating something from new materials, and the fact that an item thrown away will sit there, preserved for a long, long time.
posted by filthy light thief at 9:26 AM on March 14, 2013 [2 favorites]

At the end of the day, you can see the caretakers empty all this carefully sorted recycling into the garbage bin along with everything else. When I saw that, I stopped recycling at work too.

This is how it has gone at both state and national parks I've worked at (at least some of them). There are even separate bins and everything, yet in the end it all just gets loaded into the same truck and taken out of there. (These places tend to contract out waste removal, especially on the islands I've worked on, so that could be why. One company claimed they sorted it by hand after they took it off. Uh...sure.) So yeah, I recycle at home where at least I see that a separate truck comes and takes my recycling, and sometimes I will recycle when I'm out in public, but often times I don't. Not a lot of faith that it's actually being recycled.
posted by primalux at 9:32 AM on March 14, 2013

[From this point forward address answers towards the OP, do not have an argument about recycling in this thread. Thank you.]
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 9:35 AM on March 14, 2013

Sometimes I forget to recycle because my brain is lazy. It's busy thinking about all the other things i should be doing or last nights TV, or a Metafilter thread I just read, or that I need to buy cat food on my way home.

The stupid thing works on habit and its pretty ingrained in my brain that you can't leave garbage laying around but it's somewhat less ingrained in my brain that I need to recycle so sometimes when I'm working on autopilot I forget.

Changing habits as hard and I think the best you can do is make it easy for people.
posted by SpaceWarp13 at 10:13 AM on March 14, 2013

I would stay away from saying something to your colleagues unless you happen to be one of those rare people who can correct someone without them feeling corrected. (This is not common.)

My community has a crazy-active recycling and composting program, and one thing they do that I found very effective in changing my habits when I moved here was to put a 8.5 by 11" piece of paper on each bin that clearly labelled what the bin was (e.g., recycling, compost, landfill) with pictures printed on it of what should go in. The pictures vary by location; in a fast-food restaurant you're generally going to see pictures of all the things that they provide (wrappers, compostable utensils, straws, napkins, glass juice bottles) whereas out in the park or in the library you'll see more general pictures on each sign. But the pictures are important because they make it easier to figure out at a glance "oh hey I'm holding an [empty coke can] [empty soup can] [piece of paper] [empty glass juice jar] [yogurt container], that goes in the recycle" and you don't have to sit there and try to figure out it.

Also, the sign on the trash usually says LANDFILL and has a big picture of a nasty landfill underneath. I thought it was over-the-top when I first moved here but it certainly is effective at jolting you into realizing that trash doesn't just magically disappear once it leaves your hand. Not sure how that'd go over in your workplace, but even a relatively aggressive sign like that is going to be taken better by most people than being corrected by a colleague.
posted by iminurmefi at 10:24 AM on March 14, 2013 [2 favorites]

Nagging people at work about recycling will put you in the category of the passive-aggressive jerk who posts those notes:

Your mother does not work, here, Clean Up after yourself.

If you sprinkle when you tinkle, be a sweet and wipe the seat.


Don't be that person. Lead by example and let the rest of it go.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 10:28 AM on March 14, 2013 [1 favorite]

Also, as a side note: if you're set on trying to encourage more people to recycle at your workplace (which is a not-bad thing in general), I think it's probably worth your time to visit the webpage of the local company who handles recycling and making sure you're 100% clear on what is recyclable. I have occasionally run across people who consider themselves really excellent recyclers but in reality are doing things that are threatening the sustainability of the program they're trying to promote--in other words, they have an orientation towards making themselves feel good by recycling every single thing even if it's kind of marginal, where most recycling companies or programs are quite clear about the fact that mixing in non-recyclable materials to the recycling stream can ruin entire loads of otherwise-recyclable materials, and create excess costs for the program.

Things that most recycling programs will tell you should never be recycled include stuff like paper or cardboard boxes with any sort of grease or food waste permeating them (e.g., pizza boxes) and plastic bags. My recycling program will accept plastic tubs but not the lids made of the same material, because those screw up the automatic sorting machines. A lot of it might not be totally intuitive, so it's worth double-checking to make sure any signs you make encouraging people to recycle are sending the right things into that bin.
posted by iminurmefi at 10:29 AM on March 14, 2013 [5 favorites]

I recycle things consistently that I know can be recycled like glass and aluminum, but I get totally muddled by plastics. Some plastics can be recycled, some can't, and it all depends on a symbol somewhere on the bottle? And sometimes that symbol is a number, I think? I'm not sure how you're supposed to know which numbers are allowed. And lids, which are often made out of a different kind of plastic, are sometimes allowed and sometimes not? And I have the vague feeling that there are rules about how much food is allowed in the plastic container before it becomes trash and not recycling? If there isn't, there should be. This all means that I frequently end up standing in front of the various trash/recycling bins with a container like they give you in the mall of mostly-eaten Chinese food trying to figure out where to throw it. And it's true: I mostly just guess, which would make my behavior look very inconsistent from the outside, because most official recycling signs act like this is all totally self-evident and don't give me the kind of specific info I need to actually understand what I should be doing.
posted by colfax at 10:57 AM on March 14, 2013 [1 favorite]

Be the example. Recycle diligently and others may catch on. If not, at least you are doing your part.

Just don't be the office recycling nag.
posted by rachaelfaith at 11:00 AM on March 14, 2013

Are you talking about what these other people do in their own homes, what they do at work or what they do in your home? It does make a difference, you know.

** If you object to how other people separate their trash and recyclables in their homes, then too bad, because you have absolutely no say in what they do. Keep your mouth shut, do not badger them: it's solely their business, not yours.
** If you're talking about your workplace, then is there already a company recycling plan in place? If not, then figure one out and present it to your bosses: "this is good for both company PR and the economy, plus we can even sell some of our trash to recyclers!" But don't go electing yourself Recycling King and then try to order your coworkers around. If it's other companies, not the one you yourself work at, then usually the 'other people's houses' rule applies.
** If it's your own home, then whatever makes you happy goes..... however: that does not include badgering your parents if its their house you happen to live in, nor does it mean you have permission to hector anyone --- ask nicely, and you'll get far more cooperation.
posted by easily confused at 11:48 AM on March 14, 2013

My workplace recently changed the sign on each bin from 'Trash' to 'Landfill'. They also have very clear pictures of all the normal items like soda cans and all the recyclable dishes in our cafeteria, so there's really almost no thought in figuring out if the thing you're holding is recyclable.
posted by jacalata at 12:07 PM on March 14, 2013 [1 favorite]

My roommate is UNBELIEVABLY lazy about recycling (and other things). I think she just doesn't care, and her lack of care about the environment extends into other areas of her life. I sneak into the trash and separate out the recycling, but I don't think you can do that at work without being a weirdo. Just lead by example and accept that some people are lazy and don't care.
posted by ablazingsaddle at 12:33 PM on March 14, 2013

I work at an award-winning recycling-obsessed school. Let's just say that the one time I had food poisoning and desperately needed a trash can, I couldn't find one and ended up puking in the recycling, they're so obsessed. You have to make it easy for them. Don't make them hike out of their way, don't make them do special care or a lot of thought. They really just want to GET RID OF THAT, and if you're making them ponder exactly what kind of plastic has to go in which bin, that's the point where the person who doesn't give a shit about recycling says, "Fuck it, where's the ACTUAL trash bin?" Saving the planet is not their priority, or at least isn't in that moment in time, and you can't really force someone to care. And even someone who cares deeply about recycling cans may lose their caring the more complicated it gets. (I, for one, don't give a shit about the compost. Har.)

Most people have "recycle the bottles and cans" down, but the sorting beyond that gets complicated. I can say that at UCD, they have bins like this at events and they categorize the kinds of trash people have, and at the zero waste events they'll prevent you from finding an actual trash can to throw away general trash. They'll have a list, with pictures, on the top of each trash bin to indicate what goes in what. They have segregated trash bins in the campus restaurants with the signs, all together, so nobody has to think about it very hard in that moment.

if you really really super care, though...I think you need to volunteer to sort through the trash yourself and take care of it. It's more important to you than it is to everyone else, then you need to do it for yourself.
posted by jenfullmoon at 7:17 PM on March 14, 2013

I was only able to deal with so many sets of recycling regulations before I lost track. I learned the rules at college with crystal clarity, but after moving again and again, I now am sorry to admit how fuzzy it all is to me.

I once lived in one jurisdiction, worked in another, and took frequent classes in a third. Each had its own rules about which plastics they'd take. For god's sake, not every building recycled certain things. Rather than carry around a matrix of which locations recycled what, certain items became wild cards. I'd always recycle glass and metal, but I'd play the odds on the plastics, "ummm #3 is recyclable about 60% of the time?? I'm gonna go with 'yes' this time."

If it helps you have patience, try to think of all the unsustainable things you do. About two years back, there was a study that found that on average people in some cities (like San Francisco) drive a lot less than average--but wait! They fly so much more that it cancels out any climate benefit.

And even if you are a model of environmental perfection, think of the issues on which you are uninformed. While you were learning the recycling regulations, they were probably figuring out which household purchases support states with civil rights abuses or whatever, and when you walk in with your [Dell?] they're all "how can anyone buy that; don't they know about the 11 year old who died at that factory??" [I am making this up.] Or maybe when you talk about environmentalism, they think, "how can she care about the polar bears when two miles from here, there are kids who don't know whether or not there will be food dinner?" My point is that well meaning people can prioritize different things.
posted by salvia at 12:18 AM on March 15, 2013

I don't mean to pick on an individual here, but to provide a response to the question at large. I feel that the notion that recycling can be a waste of energy discounts the energy and resource costs involved with creating something from new materials, and the fact that an item thrown away will sit there, preserved for a long, long time.

I do not feel picked on at all, nor do I feel I'm an individual here.

I agree there are other benefits, and your thought suggests another area Big Capital could impact: stop selling us so much stuff.
posted by vitabellosi at 4:17 AM on March 15, 2013

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