by David Goldstein

Usually, buying a product with less packaging reduces waste. This is obvious with products like laundry detergent, dishwashing liquid, or cleaning fluids sold as concentrates. Adding water at home, rather than buying the product in its diluted state, is great for the environment because concentrates not only cut packaging requirements, concentrates also reduce transportation volume. Concentrates usually save consumers money, too, as manufacturers pass on a portion of packaging and transportation savings. 

For one important recyclable package, however, smaller serving sizes are not necessarily leading to less waste. According to researchers, when people buy the cute, small size of sodas, they are likely to drink more than one, leading to a net increase in packaging consumed.

David Just, a professor of behavioral economics at Cornell University, and Brian Wansink, the director of the Cornell Food and Brand Lab, described their research a few years ago in an article published in the Washington Post on  Feb. 11, 2016 (1). As Just states in the article, consumers who are “left wanting or who feel they have done something virtuous by not consuming more” often “feel they have a license to consume more elsewhere, and most often overcompensate.”

The research of Just and Wansink may also explain why today curbside recycling is not having the effects anticipated when it was introduced in the early 1990s. At that time, I was on the Ventura Countywide Recycling Consortium, a group consisting of recycling coordinators from each city, the county, private refuse hauling companies and other interested parties. We anticipated not only increased recycling rates, but also gleefully discussed the possibility of convenient household recycling leading to monumental, societal change. 

I remember speculating, “Just as a baby’s first step toward responsibility is learning to manage their own waste, when home-based recycling becomes popular, everyone will start noticing their discards, and there will be a massive movement not just to recycle, but also to reduce and reuse waste.” 

Now, a generation has been raised with convenient household recycling . . . but disposal did not dramatically change. According to data from the California Department of Resources Recovery and Recycling (CalRecycle), there was an initial drop in per resident disposal in California through the early 1990s, but it inched back up nearly as high in the late 1990s, and has changed only slightly since then, both rising and falling, due to many factors, such as economic prosperity.

Some analysts speculate curbside recycling was not a panacea because residents’ responses to curbside recycling may have something in common with consumer responses to drinking soda in smaller containers. Being “virtuous” by recycling may make consumers feel more entitled to consume.  

This issue is especially relevant to plastic containers other than bottles with the #1 or #2 label on the bottom. Despite downturns in the markets for most plastics, all types of plastic — other than plastic bags and foam — are still accepted in curbside carts because markets are being developed, the segregated supply makes developing markets easier, and consumers would be confused by items being included, then excluded, then included again. To prevent packaging companies from gaining market advantage by falsely conveying the impression their products are easily recycled, California law allows the word “recyclable” on packaging only if at least 60 percent of recycling facilities in the state recycle it, and pending legislation (SB 343) proposes to reserve use of the chasing arrow symbol only for products generally recycled.

Avoiding certain types of packaging is an example of source reduction. Source reduction encompasses the “reduce and reuse” portion of the eco-mantra “reduce, reuse, recycle,” which is a hierarchy of priorities, rather than just a list of options. Based on the research of consumer behavior, those concerned about the environment should be aware of their feelings about their accomplishment of putting items in curbside carts. “Don’t pat yourself on the back so hard that you end up breaking your arm,” is one popular phrase of warning relevant in this case. Without the self-awareness necessary to avoid the common human pitfall of pride, some measures can become source expanders rather than source reducers.

 

(1)“Coca-Cola’s clever new trick,” David Just and Brian Wansink, Washington Post, Feb. 11, 2016. (www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonk/wp/2016/02/11/coca-colas-clever-little-trick/)

More information at www.calrecycle.ca.gov/lgcentral/goalmeasure/disposalrate/graphs/disposal

David Goldstein, Environmental Resource Analyst with Ventura County Public Works, may be reached at 805-658-4312 or david.goldstein@ventura.org.