Face of Climate Change: A green recycling bin?

This entry is part 3 of 5 in the series Face of Climate Change
Dr. S. Montazeri UofM photo green recycling bin

Photos today from tests of green bin by Dr. Soodeh Montazeri, a graduate of the Design Science Department at the University of Michigan.

The face of climate change often is a human or animal face, but as we saw yesterday, fictional characters in a children’s book can also be the face.  The Face of Climate Change is this year’s Earth Day theme, chosen to personify environmental challenges and heroes. Today, let’s consider the image of an inanimate object: a green recycling bin.

Can the color of a bin change human behavior?

Almost eight of ten Americans (77%) say they recycle, according to a poll by the Pew Research Center. There are few demographic differences in who recycles. Young and old recycle at the same high levels, though young adults (18–29 years of age) show the biggest improvement since 2002. Republicans and Democrats are equally likely to recycle—one of the few environmentally friendly practices on which they agree.

One difference in behavior might be due to the color of the trash and recycling bins, according to Dr. Soodeh Montazeri, a graduate of the Design Science Doctoral Program at the University of Michigan. In a clever experiment, she had participants come into the lab (which looked like an office) and cut paper into shapes that best fit the form of a bottle. This wasn’t the real task, however. The cutting left scrap paper and the lab assistant instructed each participant to “throw it out.”

Dr. S. Montazeri UofM trash and green recycling binTwo bins were positioned behind the lab assistant and off in the corner. One bin said “TRASH” and the other said “RECYCLE.” Sometimes both bins were grey.Other times, one bin was grey, the other green. How much of a difference did color make?

A lot, Dr. Montazeri learned. Only 55% used the grey RECYCLE bin, meaning that participants were just as likely to toss the paper into the grey TRASH bin. However, when the RECYCLE bin was green, it was almost always used—88% of the participants tossed their scrap paper into it.

The researchers are still working to figure out why the green bin was preferred. It could be the association between the color green and being “green.” But when they repeated the experiment with a red bin instead of a green one, they got similar results. Perhaps the green or red or other bright color stood out.

What’s your explanation of the green-bin effect?

Do you like these unobtrusive ways of getting people to recycle?

Does a green bin count as a face of climate change?

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