Our Recyling Emergency

By: Lynn Doxtater & Albert Malkin

Brock University

Lynn is a graduate student at Brock University, currently completing a Master of Applied Disability Studies with a specialization in Applied Behavior Analysis. She has enjoyed working as an instructor therapist for children with autism spectrum disorder for five years since attaining a Bachelor of Arts in Social Psychology. She is interested in learning from her clients as they learn from her, and making a difference through behavior analysis.

Albert is an Assistant Professor at Brock University, and is completing his PhD at Southern Illinois University, Carbondale, within the Rehabilitation Studies department in the Behaviour Analysis and Therapy program. His current research interests include the influence of language on socially important phenomena; applied quantitative analysis of behavior; health, sports, and fitness; psychometric validation of behavior analytic assessment protocols; pedagogy, and obviously -- saving the world with behavior analysis. Follow him on Twitter: @albertmalkin

The Recycling Problem

During my elementary school education in Southern Ontario, Canada, which consisted of frequent David Suzuki videos, throwing paper or plastic into the garbage was treated as high treason. On the other hand, recycling was treated as my good deed for the day. The path to overgeneralization of treating too many things as recyclable seems fairly clear: garbage = “bad” and recycling = “good”. Hence, little emphasis was placed on what was and was not to be recyclable.

Unfortunately, there is a stark discrepancy between the number of items that households recycle and the true proportion of items that are recyclable. According to The Recycling Council of Ontario (2019), only nine percent of plastics in Canada get recycled.  A 2019 study by Deloitte for Environment and Climate Change Canada found that 2.8 million tonnes of plastic recycling ends up in landfills each year. Furthermore 1% (29,000 metric tonnes) ends up in lakes and oceans. The situation in Canada is not unique, the United States face the similar grim figures.

Sure, 1% sounds pretty minuscule and is probably a distant concern when visiting a local beach, however, concerns are growing about marine pollution and microplastics in today’s research (Nielson, Hasselbalch, Holmberg, & Stripple, 2019). Microplastics are pieces of plastic 5mm or less in size (1 um), and can either be purposely created for products like cosmetics or are the result of breakdown over time. They may contain toxic chemicals, which are damaging to the reproductive systems of fish, and may even be ingested by humans (Nielson et al., 2019).

How Are We Recycling Plastic?

“This sounds serious, why are so many items not getting recycled?”, you may ask… Well, a market for the recycled plastics must exist, and that market relies on proper sorting of plastics.  North America relies heavily on selling plastic internationally, and in 2018, China reduced its scrap imports by 96% because of their ban on amount and quality of materials they would accept (Lewis & Hayes, 2019). The ban was partially due to items arriving dirty and improperly sorted. Previously, Canada exported 36% of plastic internationally, dropping to 29% in 2018 (Lewis & Hayes, 2019). 

Though it is currently difficult to sort and to sell, recycling is still useful in the fight against climate change.  We can achieve a significant reduction in energy use and greenhouse gases whenever a single kilogram of plastic is recycled in place of manufacturing new plastic materials (Lewis & Hayes, 2019).

Using Behavioral Strategies

To reduce greenhouse gases, we must decrease our overgeneralization of recyclable plastics. A simple behavioral strategy to improve sorting was alluded to by Horner, Eberhard and Sheehan (1986), who demonstrated the importance of negative teaching examples when showing learners when it was appropriate or inappropriate to bus tables in a restaurant setting. To help discriminate between recyclable and non-recyclable plastics at home and in public bins, cities could require that all blue bins keep a recent sticker showing examples AND non-examples of items for each bin.

People may not be motivated to put forth extra effort in sorting recyclables, if their waste continues to be taken away non-contingently. Stokes and Osnes (1989) suggest you can influence problematic behaviour by ensuring that it no longer works (this is called an extinction contingency). Meaning recycling may not be taken away, if sorted improperly.  This is a practice already put in place by some jurisdictions. Unfortunately, this is not a perfect solution, since the feasibility of searching each blue box thoroughly involves great effort.  

Turning Off the Tap

Sarah King (head of the oceans-and-plastic program for Greenpeace Canada) asserts, we must turn off the tap rather than catching the drips (as cited by Rabson, 2019). Nielson and colleagues (2019) suggest a complete change in the recycling industry. We should transition from a linear creation and disposal pattern of consumption, to a circular pattern of reducing and reusing.

One way of doing this, is if large production companies were responsible for paying for and manage recycling (Lewis & Hayes, 2019).  Shifting costs may be risky, since costs may eventually be the burden of customers. Yet, the same was said about the carbon tax, which is arguably the most successful strategy for cutting emissions with little burden on the consumer. The carbon tax was found to cut emissions by seven percent in British Columbia (Murray & Rivers, 2015). Shifting responsibility of disposal and recycling to producers rather than consumers may result in increased motivation to decrease the creation of new plastic and/or create plastics that are easier to recycle. This intervention may be orders of magnitude greater at decreasing pollution, than consumer-side interventions.

Reducing the Effort 

We need behavior interventions that completely change our patterns of behavior.  Fritz and colleagues’ (2017) study on increasing correct recycling at a university shows that students were more likely to recycle their items when the recycling bins were placed by the garbage in the hall, rather than having a trash can at the door of each classroom.  Ultimately, a key factor that may influence consumer recycling is response effort.  If we decrease how hard people (or organizations) need to work to avoid single use plastic items, such as only providing paper grocery bags, or removing straws at restaurants, it’s easier for everyone to reduce their intake.

Without real, large-scale systemic change, we are running out of space for our litter.  We won’t be able to catch anymore leaks when the bucket is full. It is time to turn off the tap. With policies like the ones proposed above, that make use of tried and true insights from behavioral science, the change in our production and our pollution could be revolutionary. 



Fritz, J. N., Dupuis, D. L., Wu, W., Neal, A. E., Rettig, L. A., & Lastrapes, R. E. (2017). Evaluating increased effort for item disposal to improve recycling at a university. Journal of applied behavior analysis, 50(4), 825-829. https://doi.Org/10.1002/jaba.405

Horner, R. H., Eberhard, J. M., & Sheehan, M. R. (1986). Teaching generalized table bussing: the importance of negative teaching examples. Behavior modification10(4), 457– 471.

Lewis, J., & Hayes, M. (2019). Reduce, reuse recycle, rejected: why Canada’s recycling industry is in crisis mode. The Globe and Mail. https://www.Theglobeandmail.Com/canada/article-wish-cycling-canadas-recycling-industry-in-crisis-mode/

Murray, B. & Rivers, N. (2015). British Columbia’s revenue-neutral carbon tax: A review of the latest “grand experiment” in environmental policy”. Energy Policy. 86, 674-683. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.enpol.2015.08.011

Nielsen, T. D., Hasselbalch, J., Holmberg, K., & Stripple, J. (2019). Politics and the plastic crisis: A review throughout the plastic life cycle. Wires energy and environment, 9(1), 1-18.  https://doi.org/10.1002/wene.360

Rabson, M. (2019). It’s going to take ‘radical changes’ to improve Canada’s plastics recycling, report says. Financial Posthttps://business.financialpost.com/news/retail-marketing/improving-canadas-recycling-output-will-take-radical-changes-report

Recycling Council of Ontario. (2019). Canada recycles just nine per cent of its plastics.  https://rco.on.ca/canada-recycles-just-9-per-cent-of-its-plastics/

Stokes, T.F., & Osnes, P.G. (1989). An operant pursuit of generalization. Behavior Therapy, 20(3), 337-355. https://doi.org/10.1016/S0005-7894(89)80054-1


Share this Page/Post