Recycling should be simple, right? Especially when we’re living in an age where those blue bins with single stream recycling are so common. Yet many of us still find it difficult to participate in the recycling process. You’ll be happy to know that for most of us, it’s not all about laziness or a careless attitude toward the environment. In general, people do genuinely care about our world and the environment, and nobody wants it to be polluted on purpose. But when it comes to recycling, it appears that part of what keeps us from actively sorting our recyclables may be rooted in the wiring of our brains.

Our minds automatically want to sort and organize things. But there is an issue that comes into play when certain items come in different forms. For example: paper. It can be in its original sheet form, it can be ripped into pieces, or it can be crumpled up into a ball. Even though there aren’t any differences in the actual material, sometimes we don’t quite see it that way. Once the paper becomes distorted, it has the appearance of “trash” and our brain labels it as such. This wiring in our brain could be contributing to the 247 million tons of waste that ends up in landfills annually, so it’s important to understand so we can overcome it.

recycle shredded paper

Researchers from Boston University and the University of Alberta teamed up and conducted a study to figure out how our inclination to categorize has an effect on the decision to recycle or not. Students who were asked to participate in the study had a simple task. They were given a piece of paper and were asked to dispose of it properly. Some of the students got fresh paper in mint condition, while others got paper that had been crumpled into a ball. As predicted, the students who received the pristine paper were much more likely to recycle it, while the crumpled sheets more often ended up being tossed in the trash. The same results were generated when the paper was distorted in other ways, such as being cut or torn into pieces. It became “damaged” and destined for the garbage.

When students were given both types of paper, the flat sheets of paper were recycled an astonishing 70% more than the crumpled ones. Both items are essentially the same, made from the same materials. All that differs is their physical appearance, and it is enough for our brains to separate them into different categories. One is trash, the other is not. A good way to decrease the amount of recyclable paper that ends up in the trash just because it is “distorted” is to have an image of crumpled paper on the recycling bin, helping our minds to categorize the crumpled paper into something that should go into recycling bins.

paper in trash and recycle bin

When we first see something, our mind decides if it is an object or a person, and whether or not it is a threat. Another study says that our minds aren’t wired to deal with large, slow-moving threats. While we may see obvious changes in the climate and the environment over a period of many years, it’s happening too slowly for our minds to comprehend. In individuals’ lifetimes, they may not see changes in climate happening before their eyes, and therefore may not assess the situation as one that requires immediate action. Even if changes are severe in an area, such as record low temperatures or a long drought, residents of that area won’t be seeing the other strange changes happening around the globe. The threat is then seen as smaller scale or temporary.

It’s very “out of sight, out of mind,” and even with warnings given to us by environmentalists, it is difficult to see the immediate need for attention. Businesses and organizations on the other hand are more apt to look into the future to plan for how weather changes could affect their business. They might have a more conscious mind to try to have practices that are more eco-friendly with less of a carbon footprint. These businesses and organizations could help push more people to get on board with habits that are simple, yet impactful, such as recycling.

Businesses and depictions of “flawed” recyclables could be a start. Do you have other ideas or solutions to overcome this wiring in our brains? Let us know in the comments below!