I am an ardent recycler, but strongly believed that the question on the recent Massachusetts ballot to expand bottle deposits to cover non-carbonated beverages was a bad idea. The theory is that having people pay a small additional fee for each bottle purchased which is only returned when the bottle is brought to a redemption center will increase recycling behavior. Research on motivation, though, shows us the opposite.
A bottle deposit is an extrinsic motivator for recycling behavior. Recycle, and you get your nickel back.
What happens when someone decides they don’t need the nickel?
What happens when someone has an empty bottle in New Hampshire or California, and won’t get the nickel if they recycle there?
What happens when dragging all of the empty bottles back to a redemption center becomes a pain, and instead of thinking about the values of recycling, someone rationalizes that a few dollars isn’t worth the hassle?
Better to encourage identified regulation, so someone recycles a water bottle in support of their larger goal to protect the environment.
Better still to encourage integrated regulation, so the bottle gets recycled by someone who considers herself an environmentalist and would never dream of placing it in a trash bin instead of a recycling bin.
If the research on the undermining effect has taught us anything, it’s that amping up extrinsic incentives is a great way to extinguish long-term behavior change. If our goal is to encourage recycling of plastic beverage containers, expanding bottle deposits is the wrong way to go about it. Chances are, that’s not why MA voters rejected Question 2, but this psychologist is glad they did anyway.