Reduce, Reuse, Throw Away?

108586027National Public Radio has another fascinating story on folk assumptions and the implications of classification. Heard it?

As the print version of the story opens…

Picture 2He found that empty soda cans went in the recycling bin but dented empty soda cans went — you guessed it — in the garbage can. Although both are recyclable in precisely the same way — after all, it’s a process that doesn’t much care about dents or the size of the piece of paper — the researchers concluded that we seem to assess the used item as sufficiently like or unlike a “proper” or “ideal” version of the item that someone might conceivably use again (call it the prototypical can or sheet of paper, perhaps) and then we act accordingly: sufficiently like the prototype makes us see it as reusable and thus worth recycling. Insufficiently like results in it being classed as trash instead.

Thus reuse is conflated with recycle; potential recycling gets tossed in the circular file.

circular-fileWhy does it matter? Again, according to the article:

Picture 3I, for one, know that I’m far more likely to recycle whole sheets of paper; but if I tear up the paper for some reason, like ripping up something small already — an old receipt, for example — it now counts as trash (i.e., something to be hidden, destroyed, canceled from existence, etc.) and, yup, I throw it away.

The moral of this story? Folk taxonomies and classification systems matter. Oh, and inasmuch as we too are human beings, we are our own data.

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