It’s a sight to behold: a white-coated scientist upside down in the recycling bin, fishing out bottles of cheap whiskey all for the sake of “research.” This isn’t how it happens, of course. The real design is far more elegant and dignified, and when it comes to understanding the drinking habits of low-income adults, it’s also highly effective.

A new study from Ohio State University finds bottle counts can serve as a reliable predictor for alcohol consumption. So far, the research has been limited to low-income residence complexes, but the investigators believe it could have wider appeal, casting a net to include places around college campuses like residence halls and fraternity and sorority houses. The system is far simpler and more accurate than relying on self-reported consumption levels.

“We were able to check how much the residents said they were drinking with the empty beer, wine, and liquor containers they were actually putting in the recycling bins,” said John Clapp, co-author of the study and professor of social work at OSU, in a news release.

Clapp and his team of colleagues set up two recycling bins on each of the five floors of their target residential complex in San Diego. Twice a week for 55 weeks they sorted alcohol bottles from the bins, all the while tracking beer, wine, and liquor consumption. By the end, they had collected 3,014 alcohol containers representing 14,103 standard drinks. And while the total number of containers actually fell below residents’ estimations, Clapp chalked the difference up to people mistakenly throwing bottles in the trash.

Based on the findings, the team speculated about 25 percent of the alcohol users, or 10 percent of the total complex population, were at risk for alcohol abuse. “It was important to learn this,” Clapp said, “because limited research has been conducted on the prevalence of drinking among low-income older adults.” With the information, low-income residences and universities could institute monitoring programs that pinpoint when people drink, how often, and in what quantities.

For instance, they discovered people were most likely to consume alcohol around holidays and when they received their social security checks. These findings aren’t necessarily surprising, but “it is not something that has been studied before in older adults,” Clapp said. “It suggests that social workers and others should target their alcoholism prevention programming to these times when there is the most alcohol use.”

While low-income areas aren’t always in a position to afford greater amounts of alcohol, heavy drinking is often just as prevalent in these areas because people spend a greater portion of their income on alcohol than higher-income individuals. Likewise, in college settings, where drinking is engrained in the culture, alcohol consumption continues to vex public health officials and university heads. If consumption turns to abuse, the consequences can turn into a vicious cycle of dependency. For people whose job it is to monitor where the tipping point lies, recycling bins may offer the simplest and richest point of data.

“This type of research is inexpensive, unobtrusive, and relatively easy to do,” Clapp said.

Source: Clapp J, Reed M, Martel B, Gonzalez M, Ruderman D. Drinking Behavior Among Low-Income Older Adults: A Multimethod Approach to Estimating Alcohol Use. Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research. 2014.