I Hate Recycling

Cognitive observations on how to make recycling easier for everyone

Posted Jan 31, 2020

I want to be a good person. So I like to recycle. But I worry that I am not doing it right. And I worry other people judge me every time I make a mistake with my trash.

Plastic is the worst. Is this piece of plastic something I can recycle? Some types of plastic are and some aren’t accepted for recycling. Which plastic can be recycled isn’t the same in every community. Or maybe this is one of those fancy plastics that can be composted. Think about the lid for a to-go coffee cup – in some places it goes in the trash, in others into recycling, and in some it becomes compost. Which plastic is this and which community am I in? Plastic is hard to know how to recycle.  

Cardboard isn’t much better sometimes. It’s paper, sure. But this was a pizza box. And there’s a bit of cheese stuck to it. Do I have to rip the cheese off? Is it compostable now instead?

Let’s make it more complex. Each community seems to have different rules for recycling. In some places, you dump everything that could be recycled into a single bin and it gets sorted later. In other places, you have to sort into different bins. In some places, you have to go to a different location with your recycling. I’m lucky that my community cares about recycling and provide a variety of options. In some places, you must do extra work to find someplace to accept your recycling.

Ira Hyman
The set of trash and recycle bins on my campus
Source: Ira Hyman

Keep in mind, if you make a mistake, then you may ruin everything in the bin. Of course, even if you do everything right, it may not matter. Several news reports in the last few years have noted that material that is supposed to be recycled may actually end up in the trash dump (see this news article in the NY Times).

So I can understand why people might get frustrated with recycling. It isn’t easy to manage in many places. And knowing what you can and can’t recycle is always hard. But what really bothers me, is the guilt that I feel when I worry I’ve failed. I really do want to be a good person. And good people recycle. Good people try to make less trash, they keep the world clean. We judge ourselves and we judge others based on success and failure on these types of social activities.

But the problem isn’t your failure, or mine. In our society, we consider these types of social and ethical behaviors as an individual responsibility. You must recycle. You have to figure out the system. You have to determine which items belong in which bins, and which can be recycled and which become trash. Frankly, this is a big problem. We make it harder to do the right thing (recycle appropriately) than do the wrong thing (just toss it in the trash). When people have to make decisions, they don’t always work hard with every decision. Instead, they go with the easiest option. You aren’t a bad person for doing the thing that society makes easy.

If we want effective recycling. Then we need to make it the easiest choice. We need to make the option to recycle simple. In every decision situation, there is the easy to choose option, and a harder to perform option. Recycling, if we want people to do it, needs to be the easiest option.

Ira Hyman
A lid with a clear identification
Source: Ira Hyman

You shouldn’t have to look up each type of plastic. There should only be two at most. Plastic to recycle. And plant based plastics that are compostable. Each should always be clearly labeled (see the example to-go cup lid in the picture). We should make it simpler and easier to do the right thing.

Redesigning the decision situation in this fashion is called a nudge. A nudge is actually a technical term. People confront many decisions; lots of small decisions all day long. For some decisions, society may have a preference that you make a particular decision. If we have that preference, we could, as a society, force people to make that choice. We could make rules and laws. We could fine people for their mistakes. But we don’t need a rule. There is another option. We can simply give people a nudge.

In each decision situation, one option is almost always the easiest one to choose. In some situations, that is the default option. In a default, if you don’t actively choose, then this is what you get. In other situations, the default is the easy option that you take without extra work. Richard Thaler has described several nudges. The classic example of a nudge concerns whether to invest in a retirement plan at work. Do you make a contribution to a 401k plan? At one time, the default option when you started a job was to not invest. And thus most people didn’t. You had to take extra steps to start investing.

Whether to invest was a choice: Invest or not. There was also the choice the society as a whole would rather you take – you really should invest in your retirement plan. But doing the right thing took extra work, so many people didn’t.

The nudge simply rearranges the decision situation. Make contributions to a retirement plan the default. If people don’t want to, then they have to make extra steps. With investing as the default, most people do invest. Changing the decision situation can easily lead people to choose the better option – better for them and society as a whole.

With recycling and many other environmental decisions, we have made it harder to do the good thing (see my other blog post on nudges for transportation decisions). With recycling, ask why we have so many plastics that really can’t be recycled. Ask why you have to make extra efforts to recycle. A nudge for your decision is to make recycling easier than throwing something in the trash. Almost everything you purchase should be easy to recycle. Recycling will then become the default.

For those who want to argue about the economics, you might suggest that I am asking companies to spend more on their products by changing their materials. You could point out that this might raise the price of some things. I’ll simply respond that the price is being paid already. You pay the price in your time trying to recycle. More troubling is that you pay the price in environmental damage that you will someday pay to clean up. Honestly, the price is there, but we are sluffing it off until later and onto other people.

So we have a societal interest in the decisions that people make with their garbage. Given that is the case, then we should nudge them toward the decision that is good for everyone in the longer run.

In closing, I should note that my title wasn’t completely honest. I don’t actually hate recycling. I prefer recycling whenever I can. I simply hate how difficult we’ve made it for people to recycling. We should create nudges so that becomes simple.


Thaler (2018). From cashews to nudges: The evolution of behavioral economics. American Economic Review, 108, 1265-1287.

Thaler & Sunstein (2003). Nudge: Improving decisions about health, wealth, and happiness. London: Penguin.