Recycling in America in the year 2015 could not be any easier, but still 24.6 million tons of garbage end up in landfills each year. According to a recent study, this may be partially rooted in basic human nature. This is because despite our genuine desire to save the environment, the actual makeup of our brains makes carrying this out difficult.

Where The Brain Gets Things Wrong

A new study completed in partnership by researchers from Boston University and the University of Alberta investigated how our brain’s hardwired inclination to put everything we see into categories affects our decision of whether or not to recycle. Upon seeing anything, our brains automatically decide whether what we are looking at is an object or a person, and most importantly, a threat or not. This is because our brain’s visual cortex helps to categorize the world around us, a feat which amazingly still exists even in the brains of those who have been blind since birth, Scientific American reported.

However, somewhere along the lines, when we look at paper in its various states, this auto-categorization gets distorted.

To further explore this phenomenon, the researchers gave a group of 150 college students either pristine flat paper or paper crumpled up into a ball. They then asked the students how they would dispose of each, The Washington Post reported. As expected, the majority of the group revealed that they were more likely to recycle the pristine untouched paper than the crumpled up paper.

The same results were seen when students were asked to cut up a piece of paper rather than crumple it. Again, the “distorted” paper was most likely to end up in the trash and not the recycling bin despite there being no actual differences to the material itself.

“Once a full sheet of paper is cut into smaller parts, each part exhibits its own individual properties, making it more similar to trash and increasing the likelihood that it gets treated as such,” wrote the researchers.

In a separate part of the same study, participants were given crumpled and flat paper and asked to dispose of each accordingly. The researchers noted that flat paper was recycled 77.4 percent of the time while the crumpled paper was only recycled a shocking 7.8 percent of the time.

The results led researchers to conclude that changing the physical properties of the paper distorted how the brain categorized it, and unfortunately this seems to impact our recycling abilities. Thankfully, though, there is a loophole. The team found that depicting the recycling of balled up paper on recycling bins “drastically increased the recycling rates of distorted paper,” The Washington Post reported.  

Source: Trudel R, Argo JJ, Meng M. Trash or Recycle? How Product Distortion Leads to Categorization Error During Disposal. Environment & Behavior. 2015.

Original article