The Psychology of Why We Recycle

We don’t have to walk far on the sidewalk before we need to sidestep recycle trash cans, encouraging us to be a responsible citizen, and sort our empty soda cans from the various detritus and garbage we seem to produce in high volume as part of daily living.

We know it’s good to recycle.  We know it makes sense.  Yet, too much exhortation can result in citizenship fatigue, a laissez faire attitude to all things eco.  If we are honest, there is a sizeable percentage of us who find getting up off our sofas, rinsing and sorting the various receptacles and containers, just plain boring.  It’s somewhat easier to recycle and reuse the old excuses and reasons why you procrastinate, than it is to sort and deposit.  Especially when we are out and about on College Campus.  Someone else’s issue, or at least not yours.

Perhaps the question is not really about recycling, more about the psychology of motivation.  Why do we find it so hard to do the very things we know we ought?  And how can we find the leverage towards motivation, the secret formula that transforms the mundane into the must-do? Does this start with learning to recycle at home from a young age or is there more we can do?

The work of Simon Sinek is something that can be really helpful when discussing motivation. In his bestselling 2009 book, Start With Why, Sinek offers an insight into the psychology of motivation.  He argues that simply stating what we should do is a huge turn-off.  Even being told how to go about a certain action or duty such as recycling leaves us cold.  It is in the “why” that transformation occurs.  People are inspired by a sense of purpose.  Therefore, discovering and gaining self-awareness about our “why” stimulates our motivation, and primes our limbic systems to benefit from the hit of dopamine that occurs when we achieve any goal or target.  If I feel motivated about recycling, it’s a goal we want to achieve.  Having a sense of the “why” that matters to me means I have a personal reason, a personal desire to move into action.  Sinek calls the why the “golden circle”. It’s like the bullseye that results in action.  In this way, for Sinek, effective communication and motivation places the why first, with the what and how following after.  Start with the why! And Sinek’s ideas have had sticking power.  March 2016 saw professional services firm Ernst & Young roll out a program inspired by Sinek to better support clients with their transformational objectives.

So, recycling?  What’s the why?  We could talk about benefits to the environment. We could talk about financial savings.  We could talk about limited resources.  But then again, we’ve heard all of that before.  We need a fresh “why”, something transformative that connects to our deepest values and sense of self.  And, it’s in connection that we might just find the magic elixir of motivation and transformation.

COVID-19 has made human connection challenging.  Isolation, remote studying and talk of bubbles have made us realize that humans are a social species who rely on connection.  We’ve adapted and found creative ways to connect, despite the pandemic.  And in doing so, we’ve had a taste of something that pours cold (recycled) water on the notion of individualism.  We’ve had an experience that has shown that “me, myself and I” feels hollow when we have no one to share that with.  “No man is an island entire of itself” wrote 17th Century English poet, John Donne, expressing that connection matters to us as human beings.  It is our connectivity to others that transforms life from existence to enjoyment.  Modern neuroscience confirms something of the poetic sentiment of Donne:  our nervous systems want us to connect with other human beings, with “mirror” neurons within an individual’s brain activating as we observe another’s behavior and Stephen Porges’ polyvagal theory suggesting that face-to-face engagement and eye contact supports and triggers the activation of the social engagement system in others.  Whether we embrace it or deny it, we are intrinsically linked with other humans in everything we do in our lives.

As tempting as it may be to think of ourselves in individualistic terms, this denies the essential reality of our social connection.  Indeed, for many cultures with a more collectivist focus (expressed, for example, in the African proverb: “it takes a village to raise a child”), the idea of individualism seems strange.  These concepts have been expressed powerfully in the writing of Kate Tempest, an English spoken word performer, poet and recording artist.  Her track, Tunnel Vision offers a dystopian vision of a planet ravaged and decimated by human inaction.  For Tempest, individualism is a fallacy.  Our human connectedness and relatedness mean that individual failures to act are felt by the collective whole.

When we believe the lie that my actions, in the here-and-now have zero impact on others, elsewhere, then we’ve chosen to separate and detach ourselves from humanity, from community, from connectedness. A powerful and compelling “why” to the issue of recycling.  What I do, or choose not to do, has a ripple knock on effect on others.  The way I exploit, or respect the planet’s resources, impacts how others live.  In aligning with that sense of connectedness and relatedness, my actions become less about “me” and more about “us”.  In doing so, we become more human, more connected, more related.   That might seem like a grand idea when we are talking about empty soda cans.  Next time you finish your soda, commit to the why of connection and be sure to put that soda in recycle trash can.

Guest Post by Elizabeth Shields of DeluxeMaid 

Elizabeth Shields is a small business owner and blogger.  Her interests include the environment, technology, and travelling.

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