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Does Recycling Increase Consumption?

May 22 2012 | Rise Above Plastics, Bag Bans,
by Bill Hickman

The world marvels at how much Americans consume, whether if it's a disproportionate share of world energy, lots of fresh water in our daily lives or throwing away over four pounds of trash per person per day.  A recent study shows how providing recycling bins can lead to an increase in consumption and possibly more environmental issues.  We have all heard of the three R's: Reduce, Reuse and Recycle, but how many people try to embrace them every day?  Or at least sometimes?  The most important step is trying to reduce, simply using less stuff.  You would think that might be easy, but not in a disposable society where convenience is marketed as something that can be bough for cheap.

Recycling seems to give some people a false sense of achievement thinking that they can consume more.  In a study recently published in the Journal of Consumer Psychology, researchers proposed that the ability to recycle may lead to increased resource usage compared to when a recycling option is not available.  The abstract continues on to explain, "Supporting this hypothesis, our first experiment shows that consumers used more paper while evaluating a pair of scissors when the option to recycle was provided (vs. not provided). In a follow-up field experiment, we find that the per person restroom paper hand towel usage increased after the introduction of a recycling bin compared to when a recycling option was not available."

It's a pretty simple process to study but the results were a bit alarming.  Plastic bag ban opposition groups often point to the fact the plastic bags are 100% recyclable but fail to mention the fact that less than 5% of plastic bags are actually recycled.  We can't recycle our way out of the plastic bag problem, that's why Surfrider advocates for plastic source reductions such as plastic bag bans and fees.

The image above from Jim's Blog says it all - we need to bring that top line of plastics generation down because it is far outpacing the recovery (recycling) of plastics.

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