The Cooler: Recycling and Our Mental Categories about Nature

Foxtail grasses on a median strip lighted by passing cars, Minneapolis, Minnesota. Image credit: Matthew Traucht/Flickr through a Creative Commons license.

Foxtail grasses on a median strip lighted by passing cars, Minneapolis, Minnesota. Image credit: Matthew Traucht/Flickr through a Creative Commons license.

Bob Lalasz directs science communications for The Nature Conservancy.

Say you have two pieces of paper — one standard size, one about half as big.

New research shows you’re much more likely to recycle (instead of throwing away) the standard-sized piece than the odd-sized one. Why? Because you mentally categorize it as “useful” (the size you normally use) versus “damaged” (i.e., trash).

Hmmm. Could understanding this finding help conservationists better sell the value of nature to the public — especially trashy-looking nature (urban marshes, median strips, novel ecosystems in general) that doesn’t look like the nature people have been trained to value?

The study about recycling just appeared in the Journal of Consumer Research; I learned about it from an excellent summary last week in Ars Technica by the science writer John Timmer.

Researchers Remi Trudel of Boston University and Jennifer J. Argo of the University of Alberta found that subjects recycled sheets of paper similar in size to the standard U.S. 8.5×11 sheet about 80 percent of the time. (The subjects were university students who were told they were evaluating scissors.)

But when those 8.5×11 sheets were cut in half, the students’ tendency to recycle them instead of throwing them away also dropped in half.

This pattern held for soda cans, too: While 80 percent were recycled if they were regular size and undented, half-sized cans were recycled less than 50 percent of the time, and dented cans only 20 percent regardless of size.

Even more interesting: the students’ suggestibility about recycling. When the researchers asked them to come up with five uses for the smaller bits of paper, recycling rates for those bits shot up.

Of course, there is a fundamental irrationality at work here: Recycling something destroys its “usefulness” as it was, even as it extends the useful life of its component material.

But that’s beside the point, say the researchers. Our mental categories about utility frame and drive our decisions about whether to recycle something or not. And if we want people to recycle more, we should make recyclables look more like things that already have utility.

Conservation groups use recycling — whether you do it or not — as one of the key indicators for whether or not you might support conservation. So although the research paradigm here might turn out to be not at all applicable to whether people value a particular instance of nature, I think it’s worth some research to answer the following questions:

What are our prevailing mental categories about nature, and how do they prompt us to take action or not to conserve particular kinds of nature?

How do those categories and actions differ by demographics and culture–who is more likely to value beautiful nature over useful nature, or beautiful and useful nature over both? And act to protect them?

If we’re told a seeming wasteland of assorted urban nature we thought was an eyesore actually provides us with valuable services, how likely does that make us to value it more, and to take action to preserve that value? What are the ways of conveying that value that are more likely to convince and motivate us?

Actionable, tested, replicable answers to these questions for key audiences would be psy ops gold in the battle to win hearts and minds for conservation.

Beyond these kinds of conventional “how do we make them value nature” questions, I can’t help but wonder if these mental categories apply to conservationists as well.

A TV ad for Apple’s iPhone that debuted this summer showed about two dozen situations in which people used their phone to take photos. The ad was selling the idea that we now collectively take more photos with the iPhone in a day than had been taken in the entire history of photography.

By my estimate, about 35% of the photos depicted in the ad were of and in nature — on the beach, running on a scenic road, with friends in a park.

It’s just an ad, of course. And we know about the declining participation rates of people in classic nature activities (i.e., for the United States, national and state park use as well as fishing and hunting license renewals, among others). Cuts in parks and recreation funding clearly hurt many and benefit no one.

But are we missing nature use like that depicted in the ad — especially because technology is an essential intermediary in its experience? Are we undervaluing it as conservationists because our mental categories aren’t ready to admit it?

If so, how do we cultivate our approach to make sure people who value nature in more casual ways understand both its deeper values and the importance of conservation to maintaining healthy natural systems?

Thoughts, suggestions for research avenues or leads on existing research in these areas welcome.

Opinions expressed on Cool Green Science and in any corresponding comments are the personal opinions of the original authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Nature Conservancy. 

Bob Lalasz is the director of science communications at The Nature Conservancy and the editor of the new Cool Green Science. A long-time editor and writer, he was previously the Conservancy's associate director of digital marketing. He now blogs here about the Conservancy's scientific research and on-the-ground work as well as larger conservation science and science communications issues.



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