The Psychology of Recycling & Bin Literacy

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06 March 2024

Brought to you by the Profit with Purpose Magazine

A survey of over 1,300 people carried out by Repak uncovered an awareness gap between the negative effects of contamination and good recycling practices in Ireland. 

 Despite 90% of respondents recycling frequently, more than 53% were not entirely sure what can and cannot go into their recycling bin.  

Additionally, 65% of individuals were unaware that just one contaminated item could contaminate the entire bin and 47% admitted to placing contaminated items into their recycling bin unknowingly.  

Another more recent report by the EPA found that the majority of Irish householders and businesses have been putting their waste into the wrong bin.  

How to engage in better recycling behaviours? 

The recycling process is made up of billions of individual actions, but influencing recycling behaviour can be broken down into three main pillars - infrastructure, knowledge and engagement.  

In other words, we have the infrastructure, but can the item be recycled? Knowledge is deeply embedded in the area of bin literacy, the need for people to educate themselves on what goes in each bin and how to practice proper recycling.  

The engagement part then speaks to the need for more people to recycle. Raising awareness of the issue is essential but is not always enough to drive behaviour change. This emphasises the need to demystify recycling further - explaining to people what it means and why they should do it.  

Similarly, there are consequences if items are placed in the wrong bins. If done correctly, recycling can help us significantly in our mission to extract fewer virgin materials and practice reuse. However, the lack of understanding and education surrounding what goes in each bin means its success is limited. 


The psychology of recycling 

There are various psychological factors influencing our willingness and ability to recycle. 

It might be surprising to realise that small details, like changing the shape of the original item or the shape of the bin lid, can influence whether we choose to recycle or not. 

Jennifer Argo from the University of Alberta was one of the authors of a study exploring behavioural elements linked to recycling. She said in a CNN article that a crushed can would be considered damaged, and therefore, it is more likely to end up in the trash. 

She added: 

“When items become damaged, they differ from the ‘prototype’ or ideal version of that product, and as a result, they are perceived as less useful. As consumers, we tend to equate things that are useless with garbage.” 

What we accept as a norm also has a massive influence on how we behave.  

Another experiment found that when people were in a clean environment with no litter on the street, they were less likely to throw away fliers. 

A study named “Recycling Gone Bad” found that, controversially, it seems we use more resources when the option of recycling is present. 

“We think this happens because people think about recycling in terms of its environmental benefits, with less awareness that there are also environmental costs,” said Jesse R. Catlin of Sacramento State University, one of the authors of the study, in a CNN interview. 

“This view may allow people to rationalise to themselves that consuming more is OK, as long as they recycle.” 

Overall, these psychological factors can determine the effectiveness of any attempts to encourage people to recycle more and recycle correctly. 


What goes where in Ireland? 

Green or blue for recyclable waste 

The green, or in some cases, blue bin, is for recyclable waste. For example, paper, cardboard, food tins, drinks cans, tetra pak cartons, and plastics. However, it is important to remember to clean and dry all this waste so that it is suitable for recycling. 

Brown bin for compost 

The brown bin, sometimes called the compost bin, is for organic waste. Things you can dispose of in this bin include food items such as fruit, vegetables, meat, and peelings, as well as outdoor waste like hedge clippings, leaves, plants, weeds, and grass. 

Black bin for general waste 

The black bin is reserved for general waste. Everyday items that constitute general waste include nappies, soiled food packaging, black plastic bags, takeaway waste, used candles, and aerosols.  

Items not allowed in any bin 

Some items cannot be disposed of in your household bins. If these items are found in your bin, they run the risk of contaminating the other waste. For this reason, these items must be disposed of at a recycling centre.  

Some examples include:  

  • Glass 
  • Bricks 
  • Batteries and electrical items 
  • Metal (except for food and drinks cans)  
  • Oil and liquids 
  • Paint 
  • Hazardous or medical materials (needles, unused medications, and used wound dressings) 

Want to be sure? 

The My Waste website is Ireland’s official guide to managing your waste. Here you will find everything you need and want to know about managing your waste responsibly, efficiently. 


This article was brought to you thanks to our collaboration with Climate Journal and the Profit with Purpose digital magazine. Click here to read more articles like this! 

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