Letting go of gadgets: psychological tendencies behind product disposal

From 1 July 2019, the Victorian Government will introduce a ban on all e-waste going to landfill. This presents new opportunities for the collection and reuse of consumers’ used electronic products.

A new study by Monash University suggests that such a ban, as well as improved understanding of consumer psychology, offers manufacturers and recyclers a chance to increase their collection of electronic products for reuse.

Their study, led by Associate Professor Dayna Simpson, Professor Kathleen Riach, and Associate Professor Yelena Tsarenko from the Monash Business School’s Department of Management, and Damien Power from Melbourne University, is one of the few to investigate how the psychology of product ownership influences the willingness of consumers to dispose of electronic products.

Attachment and frugality

The research, published in the international Journal of Operations Management, involved 650 consumers across three studies.

It identified that two key psychological tendencies (attachment and frugality) encouraged consumers to keep unwanted electronic products in the home rather than seeking to dispose of them. These same tendencies however, could be overcome where the consumer only infrequently used the product, or if a collector promised to give the electronic product to a suitable charity for reuse.

These incentives encouraged consumers to dispose of their used electronic products earlier, and for less money if trading in the product.

Their study found that timely, safer disposal of electronic products by consumers is not just about access to collection points, but also about consumers’ feelings about the product itself.

Designing disposal incentives that tap into consumers’ tendencies of attachment or frugality can encourage increased, earlier disposal of electronic products. This would allow greater value to be captured from the products post-disposal, increase opportunities for reuse, and decrease the amount of electronic products that go to landfill.

“With electrical and electronic equipment waste expected to reach 12 million tonnes by 2020, attending to the psychology behind product disposal should be a priority for government and manufacturer campaigns looking to recover electronic goods that are in danger of becoming e-waste,” Associate Professor Simpson said.

“While certain psychological tendencies surrounding attachment and frugality reduced consumer willingness to dispose of products, they did not prevent product disposal altogether, which is a positive finding.”

Acceptance of the disposal process

For manufacturers in particular, the research found a greater willingness of consumers to trade-in near new, underutilised electronic products, which are most attractive for reuse and as such, are a priority for collection.

In addition, the co-collection of products with recyclers or charities can also significantly improve consumer acceptance of the disposal process.

“We identified that consumers would accept a discount of 29.6 per cent for their near new (six-month old) products, if they were rarely being used. This represents a potentially lucrative product for product acquisition efforts to target,” Professor Riach said.

“Small product drop-offs at public events, in-store drop offs, or initiatives advertising waste reduction or price promotions could substantially improve the effectiveness of product acquisition.

“Our findings provide valuable insights as they suggest methods for lowering the costs of product collection for manufacturers, both for newer products with resale value, and other older products that have value only for recycling.”

This research highlights that economics alone aren’t enough to motivate consumers about when to dispose of electronic products, and manufacturers and retailers must consider a wider range of psychological motivations behind consumer disposal of used electronic products.