The Altruism of Recycling

Why do we recycle? A 1996 New York Times commentary declared recycling to be “the most wasteful activity in modern America” [1]. Critics have suggested that recycling lowers industrial rates of production and consumes enough energy to easily outweigh its scant benefits to the environment [2]. On the other hand, there is also evidence proposing that the energy costs of converting recycled products are much less than those associated with using virgin resources [3]. In addition, a 2001 estimate saw the recycling industry support 1.4 million jobs with a total payroll of $52 billion [4]. The gains seem to outweigh the losses from an industrial perspective, but recycling also relies heavily on individual behavior. Classical economics suggests a positive correlation between an incentive offered (here, money for recycling) and the corresponding action. More people should recycle when given enough money, plain and simple. In turn, if individuals act in accordance with such a model, they are defined to be “rational”, whereas those who defy this model are considered to be “irrational” [5]. However, throughout real life, there are numerous instances when people do not recycle even when offered large monetary incentives and others who recycle even without it. Is there a particular reason why so many people act “irrationally”? The altruism of performing a beneficial act plus social pressures may shed light on what motivates this seemingly “irrational” act. Environmental legislation that can engage these two factors will likely have a much stronger impact.

Altruistic or selfless motives that seek to improve local communities and the whole world may encourage individuals to recycle. Since 1980, the recovery rate of municipal solid waste (or city garbage) through recycling and composting programs has observed a skyrocketing increase from less than 10% recycled wastes to 32% in 2005 [6]. Yet, at the same time, inflation adjusted monetary rewards for recycling have shown little to no increase [7], suggesting that the rise in recycling was not motivated by monetary incentives. Seemingly at odds with predictions of classical economics, this increase in recycling proposes that an internal source of motivation may be the main drive behind individuals who recycle. One possible source of internal motivation could be individual altruism. Loosely defined, altruism is a selfless concern for the well-being of others, which may be expressed by accomplishing a good deed without reward. Previous research has demonstrated that many individuals commit to the act of recycling precisely due to altruism [7,8]. In economic jargon, these individuals recycle because their personal utility for recycling outweighed their next best alternative. Furthermore, results from a 1999 study indicated that individuals who are given a monetary reward to complete a task that they would have accomplished anyways actually experience less personal satisfaction [9]. Individuals who earn a monetary reward for recycling may feel less personal drive, resulting in a “crowding out” of satisfaction. Certainly, no one would want others to think he was doing a good deed just for the money. Hence, a natural “selflessness” within individuals may be a chief motivation for recycling.

Social pressures, whether exerted through media or peers, may also contribute to an impulse to recycle. As environmentally friendly actions have come to the media forefront, recycling has become increasingly viewed as a social standard [10]. Over time, studies reveal that a social norm such as recycling may actually become internalized within individuals, becoming a part of their personal norm through social learning [11]. The steps of social learning, as presented by early psychoanalyst Albert Bandura, comprise mainly of understanding the concepts behind an action and then imitating the action as performed by others [12]. How does social learning theory relate to recycling? Through continual exposure to the merits of recycling, citizens may begin to develop a perception for the effectiveness of recycling. Of course, media also takes care of the imitation step. Advertisements frequently detail famous public figures participating in environmental campaigns or praising the numerous benefits of recycling. As studies show, public recognition of the value of recycling or other environmentally friendly acts can lead to greater participation in sustainability as justified by the social learning theory [13]. While the effect of social learning is certainly not applicable to all individuals, media-related social pressures can provide another way for environmental organizations to reach and influence the public.

Environmental protection has undoubtedly become a main issue for legislators and the media. How can they better promote recycling to a broad audience? One of the principal reasons for avoidance of recycling is and continues to be a lack of knowledge about environmental obligations. A 2001 survey conducted in Boston showed that many individuals were still oblivious to the requirements for recycling and declined to participate due to the belief that it was too inconvenient [14]. Similar results were found in a 2002 survey from Waltham, Massachusetts, where 18% of the survey respondents reported that they were unaware of how to get involved in recycling and other environmental acts despite extensive publicity [15]. Municipal governments could hence take a major initiative to enhance communications for the merits of recycling in order to engage a wider spectrum of potential participants. Nevertheless, even improved communication and monetary incentives may be unsuccessful in altering long-term behaviors. Governments and industries can fulfill their roles, but recycling is ultimately a two-front struggle. Further collaboration between environmental groups and solidarity within a community may be necessary to solidify recycling as a common norm, so that more individuals can fulfill their duties to the other front.

Altruism and social pressure are two major interacting factors that motivate people to perform good deeds such as recycling. While defining complex human behaviors such as the decision to recycle on economic principles has its limitations, it could provide environmental agencies with entry points into the minds of participants. Government and environmental activists should take the steps to understand and utilize the altruism of individuals in order to encourage people through recycling campaigns. Through social pressure, participation in the noble business of recycling could be further magnified by instilling in the public not only feelings of responsibility but also satisfaction.


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Frank Qian is a first-year biological sciences and economics double major at the University of Chicago. Please join The Triple Helix Online on Facebook. Follow The Triple Helix Online on Twitter.