Letting go of gadgets: Psychological tendencies behind product disposal

Monash University research shows consumers tend to keep unwanted electronic devices in their homes rather than have them disposed. Personal attachment and frugality are behind this behaviour.

  • The Victorian government has introduced a ban on all e-waste going to landfill. This includes mobile phones, computers and other devices.
  • Monash University research shows consumers tend to keep unwanted electronic devices in their homes rather than dispose of them. Personal attachment and frugality are behind this behaviour.
  • Designing disposal incentives that tap into consumers’ feelings can encourage increased, earlier disposal of electronic products.

As the Victorian government’s ban on e-waste to landfill kicks in this week, Monash University researchers have found people’s frugality and deep attachment to their electronic devices make them unwilling to let them go.

But, tapping into these feelings by offering trade-ins and donations could be a money-making opportunity for manufacturers and drive critical consumer behaviour change, the study, published in the international Journal of Operations Management, found.

Consumers can be encouraged to dispose of electrical items earlier and more regularly by being offered the opportunity to trade in or donate items, said Associate Professor Dayna Simpson, who led the study.

“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,” she said.

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 effort to target,” Professor Kathleen 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.”

The research involved 650 consumers across three studies, and 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.

To read the full research paper, please visit https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/epdf/10.1002/joom.1049