Psychology of Recycling



Psychology has a positive and negative effect on our recycling behaviors.  Vast research has been conducted by psychologist all over the world to find new and creative ways to increment the participation of people in recycling. These researchers have also proposed ways to better accommodate and facilitate recycling for individuals. Thus, the key to understanding recycling behaviors lie in the basic principles and theories of psychology. Environmental psychology can help further our understanding of recycling by examining behavior and creating solutions to further engage in this behavior, and ultimately help mother earth.

The Concepts

There are many psychological prcinples that can explain why(or not) people recycle. I will disicuss two of them. The first theory is called reactance theory. This theory states that one feels threatened when something or someone limits their behavioral freedoms. This limitation of alternatives causes people to choose between two  things. How does this apply to recycling behavior? First in order for this to occur an option with two or more outcomes must be presented. In this case, the option to recycle or not to recycle.  Our behavioral freedom is thus threatened by having to choose between engaging in this action or not.

The second psychological theory that can be applied to recycling behavior is called cognitive dissonance. Cognitive dissonance is the effect that occurs after reactance theory. For instance, after we are faced with the conundrum of whether or not to recycle we must decide to engage in an action. Typically, most of us engage in one action pattern. Cognitive dissonance states that one strives to maintain consistence with ones actions and thoughts. If conflict occurs between actions and thoughts (or believes est.) then one experiences cognitive dissonance. To resolve this one must match their actions with their thoughts, or minimize the importance of their thoughts. To summarize these concepts it is best to present them in an example.

Jennifer’s Story

When Jennifer goes to work, the first billboard she sees on the freeway is about recycling. As she listens to the radio, a news bulletin stating that recycling programs in India have had a great impact on the reduction of waste and have boosted local economies interrupts her favorite song. When she arrives at work, a memo about a new collaborative effort to reuse office supplies(the company had a bad first quarter) and for workers to start bringing their own mugs in order to save on foam cups is posted on the office’s break room door. When Jennifer arrives home tired from work, she has recycling ringing in her ears and bouncing inside her head. She has experienced reactance theory, because she must choose whether or not to recycle(following the medias recommendation, or her jobs requests) . Now she is thinking about not listing to that radio station because news bulletins interrupt her favorite song, and since she drinks so much coffee-- is torn on whether or not to take her favorite mug to work. Recycling has threatened her freedoms.

Almost immediately, Jennifer experiences cognitive dissonance. She knows about the importance of recycling, and the negative effects it has on our planet. Jennifer knows that she ought to bring her own mug to work, and that the painstaking task of whiting out old file titles has more than a positive economic effect for her company. As she ponders about this, she steps into her kitchen, it reeks of fish.  Jennifer looks into her trash-can to verify the odor and sees: fish heads, egg shells, plastic bags, paper tubes, food scraps, and an empty ice cream container(once again, non left for her). As she sighs, and laments about not having a scoop of rocky road, she must decide whether or not to separate the trash into the appropriate bins and recycle.

The Moral of the Story

In order to reduce cognitive dissonance Jennifer must match her thoughts and actions. There are two ways Jennifer can precede. The first option that Jennifer has is to separate the trash into the appropriate bins, thus matching her action to her believes about the importance of recycling. The second option for Jennifer is to minimize the importance of recycling and not separate the trash. Either way, Jennifer must choose which course to take, as she can only engage in one. What would you do about the trash, the mug and the annoying radio station?

So Why Do (Or Don’t) People Recycle

Self interest and desire are the reasons why. Self interest means that one does as many things as possible that benefit us; this in turn satisfies our desires, or the deeps needs and wants that our soul holds. Most of one’s self interests involve immediate pleasures. For instance, one might desire to watch a movie on TV, therefore the self interest is to do so in a way that provides the most comfort and least discomfort. Consequently, the individual decides to sit on the couch and call upon someone else to bring them the control. The persons desire to watch TV has been fulfilled and their self interest of doing so as painfully as possible as well.

We know that we should recycle, but why then do so many not do it. Information is power, but apparently it is only mental and does not transcend to ones central nervous system which would then tell the muscles to pick through the trash can, or walk a few extra steps to place the soda can in the recycling bin instead of the regular trash. Knowing is a major component of deciding whether or not to recycle in the first place, but it is not enough.

Apart from these simplistic reasons for not recycling, published a four page inventory called, Recycling: Why People Participate; Why They Don’tthat states reasons why or why not people recycle. Even though this paper is tailored to social marketing it expresses the motives of why people engage in this behavior or not. The motivations for recycling include, the perceived effectiveness of recycling, concerns about the environment, social pressure, and financial motives. The barriers of not recycling include, inconveniences, and lack of knowledge. The author proposes a good solution and explains why current community initiatives to battle recycling barriers aren’t the optimal solution. For more information click the link:

Research to the Rescue

Psychologists have observed these behaviors and set out on a quest to resolve this dilemma and increment recycling behaviors. For instance, social psychologist (environmental psychology derived from this field) have recognized a pattern between words and recycling. Robert Cialdini, PhD and two of his graduate students from Arizona State University conducted an experiment to test the power that words have on encouraging hotels guests to reuse wet towels. These five phrases were written on cards and randomly placed in guest rooms:

"Help the hotel save energy",

"Help save the environment",

"Partner with us to help save the environment",

 "Help save resources for future generations",

"Join your fellow citizens in helping to save the environment".

The results concluded that, “the last message, which described a social norm, was the most successful: Forty-one percent of the guests who got those cards recycled their towels. Next best were the messages urging environmental protection and the benefit to future generations, which led to about 31 percent reusing towels. Least successful: The message emphasizing the benefit to the hotel. Only one in five guests with that card reused their towels.”(APA)Another great research was conducted by the Environmental Assistance office, titled Use of New Media to Cause Recycling Behavior Change.



Rosy The Rivetor-WW2-Metal Scrap Recycling Iniciative
Rosy The Rivetor-WW2-Metal Scrap Recycling Iniciative


This site is an ongoing project of Dr. Perla A. Vargas and her students in Environmental Psychology at New College of Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences, Arizona State University, AY 2013-2014.


© 2013-2014 Please give credit to authors when citing. The viewpoints expressed on this site are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of ASU.

ASU logo