We thought we were doing the right thing!

Reduce, Reuse, Repudiate

While recycling campaigns can help limit what heads to the landfill, scientists are now saying that it's masked the glaring problem of over-production and de-emphasized other waste reduction strategies that are far more sustainable.

In a new essay for The Conversation, an interdisciplinary group of researchers out of the University of Virginia that's been studying the psychology of waste found that many people over-emphasize the recycling aspect of the waste management industry's "Reduce, Reuse, Recycle" slogan. The result, they say, is a major backfiring as the public has come to mistakenly consider recycling a get-out-of-jail-free card, confusing which goods are actually recyclable in the first place and ignoring the growing waste production catastrophe.

In a series of experiments, the UV researchers first asked participants first to list "reduce," "reuse," and "recycle" by order of efficacy — the correct answer being the same one in the old slogan — finding that a whopping 78 percent got it wrong. In a second experiment, the researchers had participants use a computer program to virtually "sort" waste into recycling, compost, and landfill bins. Unfortunately, the outcome of that survey was even more stark, with many incorrectly putting non-recyclable waste, such as plastic bags and lightbulbs, into the virtual recycle bin.

Cause and Effect

While over-emphasizing or getting the recycling protocol wrong is an issue on its own, its downstream effects have been devastating as microplastics from consumer waste continue to pollute our oceans, land masses, and bodies — and as greenhouse gases from the production of all this stuff keep throttling our planet.

While lots of governmental bodies are, as the researchers note, attempting to stem and even ban the proliferation of single-use plastic goods such as plastic straws and bags, the industries responsible for creating those landfill-bound items keep making more and more of them, and even their own mitigation strategies are voluntary.

The onus to reduce, reuse, and recycle ends up falling on consumers — who, as the aforementioned studies show, aren't as well-trained on how to do them as we should be. It's a status quo that does little to tackle the global waste crisis and ends up using a lot of logistical and worker power to boot.

More on waste: The Ocean's Plastic Pollution Has Spiked to "Unprecedented" Levels

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