Bryan Caplan  

Expressive Recycling

LDC Debt... Oddly...
Like me, Tyler Cowen often believes that people's beliefs are irrational and their motives are expressive.  But unlike me, he doesn't think that low stakes are an important reason for these tendencies.  In fact, he delights in the counter-intuitive view that if you raise the stakes, irrational and expressive tendencies become even more pronounced.

So I wonder how he'll react to this recent Yale-GMU survey on recycling.  The title of the press release: "Americans Favor Conservation, But Few Practice It."  Key findings:
A majority of Americans say that it is "very important" or "somewhat important" to turn off unneeded lights (92 percent), to lower the thermostat in winter (83 percent), and to use public transportation or carpool (73 percent), among other conservation behaviors. Yet the study found that:

      * 88 percent of Americans say it is important to recycle at home, but only 51 percent "often" or "always" do;

      * 81 percent say it is important to use re-usable shopping bags, but only 33 percent "often" or "always" do;

      * 76 percent say it is important to buy locally grown food, but only 26 percent "often" or "always" do;

      * 76 percent say it is important to walk or bike instead of drive, but only 15 percent "often" or "always" do; and

      * 72 percent of Americans say it is important to use public transportation or carpool, but only 10 percent say they "often" or "always" do.
Large majorities do "important" stuff that's in their interest anyway, like turning off lights when they're not needed.  Few do "important" stuff that's a giant pain, like not driving or composting food waste.

According to the project director, "There are many possible explanations for the gap between people's attitudes and their actual behavior."  Such as?
For example, public transportation may not be locally available or convenient. Overcoming barriers such as these will make it much easier for people to act in ways consistent with their values.
In other words, if something isn't "convenient," even people who say it's "important" usually don't bother.  But as I keep insisting, people often eagerly vote for things they won't do.  Why?  Because from the individual's point of view, voting is talking, not doing.

COMMENTS (27 to date)
Loof writes:

So, sheep no walk the talk. Do shepards? Politicians, Professors, CEOs...

Tyler Cowen writes:

I think you are citing a straw man version of my view. The degree of decisiveness is *sometimes* an important factor in determining rationality but it's not the dominant reason in all cases. Especially politics. If a single not-so-rational voter realized it was all up to him, he still would, for the most part, favor the same nonsense he does today.

agnostic writes:

One-quarter often or always buy locally grown food? That's a much huger niche than I would've thought.

Lord writes:

I 'reuse' shopping bags walking the dog, but I don't think that is what they have in mind when they want to ban or tax them.

Loof writes:

Perhaps the CEO citation is a straw man. In reality its straw sheep eat. Even when it is all up to a not-so-rational shepherd school, it’d still probably favor similar nonsense. i.e. professing “selfish-interests”.

Joshua Holmes writes:

I've always wondered whether recycling really is important. For sure, reusing aluminum, plastic, glass, paper, etc. seems like a good idea, but then you have the extra energy of separation and collection. You also need to build and maintain recycling centers, which eats up energy, generates pollution, etc. It may still be a net win, but it doesn't seem like as much as it's touted.

Of course, if nanotechnology comes to fruition, someone will send a couple of nanomachines through the landfill. These nanomachines will retrieve the aluminum, glass, plastic, and paper anyway, probably for dramatically lower costs than current recycling.

mobile writes:

Like almost everyone else, I am strongly in favor of other people conserving energy, using public transportation, helping the poor, paying their taxes, ...

Chris Koresko writes:

@Joshua Holmes,

There was a pretty good EconTalk podcast on this topic about a year ago.

From memory: The conclusion was that recycling household waste is generally not worthwhile, the exceptions being aluminum cans (not so true any more since they are made with less material than they used to be) and clear (as opposed to green, mostly) glass.

I honestly don't understand the fixation on plastic shopping bags. Best guess is that they look more important because of their large surface area and small mass.

Loof writes:

Interesting, when almost everyone wants to walk the walk and talk about others not doing the walk when crowded. This info could alter the belief that its nonsense to profess “selfishness”. Or, alternatively, in society (Gesellshaft) is it just in everyone’s habitual self-interest that lacks empathy; as apposed to community (Gemeinshaft) where empathy prevails with some self-interest?

Loof writes:

@Chris Koresko

In my opinion, the problem with concluding that recycling household isn’t worthwhile has more to do with cost/benefit analysis being generally worthless on environmental problems with some exceptions.

To help you understand the fixation on plastic bags in particular and plastic pollution in general:

Yancey Ward writes:

Seems perfectly rational. Give the politically correct answer when asked, and then do what has the most personal utility.

Ryan Vann writes:

Tyler seems a bit too enamored with being unconventional at times; however, perhaps he is partially correct in asserting that higher stakes correlate to more irrationality. Seems to me higher stakes are indicative of complexity, and that complexity leads to more irrational (I hate that word) behavior.

What Bryan is describing strikes me as rational though.

Tom West writes:

I'll go against the flow here. What if the general sentiment is that you're willing to make a few sacrifices, but only if it's going to make a "big difference".

Individually you will not behave "ecologically correctly". But if you vote for someone and they enforce a standard, then you are willing to pay the price knowing that all your neighbors are as well, and thus you'll actually get the outcome you want.

In all, it's no more irrational than making a pledge for a cause you support that will only be collected once enough people pledge to reach the goal. When the goal is reached, the pledgers don't usually rue their generosity, they're *happy* about it.

There are cases of voter irrationality. This is not necessarily one of them.

Kurbla writes:

Almost everyone breaks some traffic rules if there is no obvious danger. In the same time, almost everyone knows that it is not good habit, and that traffic police can solve that problem.

So, if we want traffic police, is it because it is only talking, not doing for us? No, but because we know that whole concept works.

Joey Donuts writes:

What, 50% of the respondents don't wash the dishes?

Chris Koresko writes:


I just measured the mass of what looked like a typical supermarket plastic shopping bag. It was 4 grams.

If each person consumes one of these per day, that's 2 Kg of them per person per year.

If the use of those bags (as opposed to, say, a collection of 5 of cloth reusable bags which are replaced annually) saves a person on average one minute per shopping trip, and the person makes one shopping trip every 5 days, then the time savings is 1.2 hours per person per year. If the value of the person's time is $50/hour, that's $60/year. In other words, the use of 2 Kg of plastic contributes $60 worth of time savings.

Of course this is pessimistic, because it ignores the cost of periodic replacement of the cloth bags. If they cost $10/bag then add another $50 to the savings. If those bags need to be washed periodically, add some hard-to-estimate but potentially substantial costs (money and environmental: energy, water, pollution by detergents, etc.) to that figure.

Also consider that a lot of people (maybe most?) use the plastic shopping bags at least one more time when they get home. For example, my family tends to use them as disposable garbage bags (trash can liners). Lord mentions bringing them on dog walks. So they are at least partially replacing other bags which would need to be bought, used, and disposed of.

I looked at the site you pointed to (the text; didn't bother with the videos). I didn't find it very convincing, because there was a lot of anecdotal material and a lack of rigor. For example, I couldn't find the mass of a plastic shopping bag on it anywhere, and it seems to me that that's a crucial factor in any analysis of their impact.

Finally, though it's possible I'm misunderstanding you, your assertion that cost/benefit analysis is generally worthless on questions like this is not very reassuring. It makes it sound like you look at recycling as a moral issue, in the sense that we all have an obligation to do it whether it is objectively beneficial or not.

If we have a goal of protecting the natural environment, it seems to me that cost/benefit analysis is crucial. This is the way to determine which pollution sources are worth going after. Should we not seek to do the most good for whatever cost we're willing to incur? Otherwise, we're likely to waste our limited resources doing things that are unproductive or even counterproductive.

Seth writes:

I'm not sure I understand the rational/irrational view. It think just about anything is rational.

I think people simply give more thought to the things they think are important to them than the things that are actually important to them.

ad nauseum writes:

Even if recycling became convenient, would sanitation workers properly sort recyclables from garbage? Or would they choose the more convenient route as well?

Sean A writes:

Rational theorists should quickly leave the field of economics and attach the appropriate label to their line of work: psychology. It is empirically obvious that people often vote or voice beleifs contrary to their actions. The causalities and potential remedies of such contradictions are a matter of psychological inquiry. The concept of "rationality" in real human action is necessarily derived from the interpreter's value judgments. I can only hope those "engineering" quasi-economists who wish to construct models for "optimal" human behavior, and wish to inject coercive policies to create their ideal system of behavior, realize that human beings are not lifeless automatons behaving in a purely systematic way. It is action that generates outcomes, thus man must be judged by action. Hoover professed himself in favor of free-markets, but his concrete actions of intervention are what unveiled his values.

Carl The EconGuy writes:

If my trash has economic value, you're welcome to come and buy it from me. If it doesn't, why shouldn't I throw it away?

So, if the community wants me to recycle, let them pay me a rebate for my effort. Then I'll comply. They might, e.g., impose a deposit for plastic bags, like for bottles in some states. Transaction costs too high? Oops, back to value again.

Until I get properly incentivized, I'll pray every evening for the Lord to make me green -- but not just yet.

On the margin, my time is worth a lot to me, but nothing to the community. It's my time, and my trash, thank you very much, and I do pay to get it hauled and dumped (twice a week, in my 'hood). There endeth my social responsibility, trashwise at least.

Orly writes:

It's easy to write about Hiati and how much you care, and how the US should take in as many as possible. It's far more difficult to live in the neighborhoods they would occupy or send your kids to schools full of them.

Loof writes:

@Chris Koresko

I assume your informal micro CBA via plastic vs. cloth bags principally pivots on selfish maximization and utility maximization to produce, market, consume and recycle evermore quantity. Noticed the absence of environmental costs-benefits, which limits what's assumed wanton to be as great as possible. Hemp bags are environmentally recyclable; plastic bags aren’t with an impact for 400+ years. Biodegradable plastic bags are being developed but environmental impacts of polymer waste and pollution remains profound.

Standard CBAs are, for the most part, worthless when unreliable in assessing impacts. They unfairly discount the future when costs-benefits are what selfish interests as stakeholders are only willing to forgo now. The writing’s on the wall for CBAs when a non-economist wins the Nobel Prize in Economics for work on environmental issues with “analysis in economic governance”. As such CBAs are increasing irrelevant, for the most part worthless, and worse: when they become part of the problem.

Recycling is a moral issue to the extent that society ethically houses environment issues with objective standards. CBAs fail the grade with an amoral stance pivoting on the subjective value of selfishness. Indeed, the positive movement of self-interest that’s free and fair (i.e. moral) opposes the negative movement of selfish-interest as an amoral free-for-all that can become downright immoral and foul. Years ago I was asked to help with the “cleanup” of the Hanford Nuclear Site. Refused, the cost-benefit analysis was a snow job. In the 20 years since they’ve contained the problem better, but have not really cleaned it up.

Brittany writes:

Recycling is important to sustain our planet. However, it is very inconvenient for some people. For example, in my town, the closest recycling center is over 20 miles away. Curbside pickup is not currently available.

I'm assuming curbside pickup is not available because the city cannot afford it. If the city cannot afford it, then why should they expect citizens to use several gallons of gas to haul off recyclables?

So I’m guessing I would fall under the category of people that say it is important, but does not do it. This is not from a lack of knowledge or care, but from a lack of access to affordable recycling. It is much easier and far cheaper to throw everything away and have the trash men pick it up at my house every week.

Brian writes:

That is the problem I always find with polls in specific subject areas. How people view themselves and what they tell others are important compared to their actual behavior is vastly different. For example, measuring how well someone would invest is totally different when they are playing a stock market game verse investing real money, let alone there own money. This survey assume people correctly measure their behavior.

For example only 33% of people say they often or always use reusable bags? Maybe living in central Florida is different than say L.A. or New York, but my experience when I go shopping is like 2% of people use reusable bags and that may be high. I do not think I have ever seen anyone in Wal’Mart use a reusable bag, in Publix I see it the most. I have a hard time believing that Central Florida could be that far off the average. Observation is not perfect, but it can be a good sanity check.

You can-not trust any survey which ask people about their behavior. You actually have to measure the behavior to get an accurate stance.

Bill Drissel writes:

Ok, all you economists, engineer here,
Proposition: One conserves all the things (seen and unseen) that humans find objectively valuable if one economizes.

Consequence: It's a waste to pay extra for recycled paper to go in the corporate copy machines. Besides, it has a poor "hand" and it looks dirty - not white.

Consequence: It's a waste for a householder to "recycle" if she's not being paid for her effort.

Consequence: It's a waste to segregate trash if your city dumps the "recycled" trash in the same landfill as general trash.

I could go on ....

Bill Drissel

Cole Germinaro writes:

ohhh wonderful information

Loof writes:

The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is an astonishing long lasting monument to the culture of plastic wastage.


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