Americans love recycling, they have no idea how it works, and they think it might be broken

by Mar 23, 2022

Shelton Stat of the Week

Thirty percent of Americans are no longer confident that what they put in the recycling bin is actually recycled.—Recycling Pulse, 2021

If you’ve been following our posts and talks, then you’re already up to speed on this: Americans love recycling. It’s the number one thing they think companies should be doing to positively impact purchase decisions by the consumer. And 85% of our fellow citizens agree that recycling is the bare minimum that we can each do for the environment.

But there are some cracks in this belief system. And brands, materials manufacturers, and packaging makers need to pay attention.

Allow me to set some context.

Several years back, we put data behind an idea that many of us in the sustainability arena have long believed to be true: Recycling makes us feel better about the stuff we buy (76% of us feel that way). It’s an amazing promise, isn’t it? “Buy whatever you want! No need to feel guilty … just put the package, maybe even the product, in your recycling bin, wheel it to the curb, and it will go to a magical place called Away and become something else! You’re doing the world a favor with all your buying and recycling!”

Most of us in the business world are propagators of this idea, which means we’re all to blame when the public trust gets broken. And I’m afraid we’re in the process of that happening now.

Americans have long been confused — and to some degree clueless — about how recycling works and, according to surveying we completed last month, that’s still true. We asked an unorthodox open-ended question: Imagine you are an item in a residential recycling bin, sitting on a curb, waiting to be picked up. Describe what happens to you as that item and all the places you go.

Many respondents (39%) could get as far as, “I’m taken to a recycling center.” Nearly one in three (31%) believe the next step of the process is “I am sorted/separated based on the type of product,” and 32% say “I am turned into a new item.” A smaller portion (15%) is pessimistic about the process, saying some version of, “I go to a landfill/I get mixed in with other trash.” The majority of the remaining descriptors is a mash-up of answers related to getting crushed, broken down, melted and transported. As we’ve coded the answers, it’s clear about two-thirds of us have very limited knowledge about how recycling happens.

Normally, I would say that’s just fine. They don’t need to know all of the details. They just need to believe it works and do their part. The problem is that they’re less likely to believe it now.

While a whopping 95% of us do believe that recycling helps the environment, 49% of us say the recycling system in America is not working well, and 30% of us are not confident that what we put in our recycling bins is actually getting recycled. That confidence level is moving in the wrong direction. In 2019, only 14% of us were not confident that our recyclables were actually getting recycled; in 2020, it was 23%.

Why does this matter? Despite all that’s been written about how manufacturers and brands need to stop putting it on the consumer to deal with waste/product end of life, we need people participating in the system! If people adopt the attitude that “recycling doesn’t really work, so why bother?” then we lose the valuable material to a landfill, with no chance to sort it and get it to an organization that might be able to use it as feedstock for new materials.

Yes, when it comes to plastics, many items deemed “hard to recycle” (like multi-layer pouches, Styrofoam, and increasingly anything stamped with a 3, 4 or 5) are indeed being sorted at recycling facilities into a landfill pile today. But that won’t be the case much longer. Every major chemical company is building some form of advanced recycling plant (and our client, Eastman, has been up and running with molecular recycling for two years now, with additional plants coming online in the next few years), and they will need every shred of plastic waste every one of us produces to feed those beasts.

The takeaway is that all of us working in sustainability need to work a hell of a lot harder to push all three Rs and give people living in America a reason to believe that recycling actually works. We should fix the system and tell the people all about it. They want it to work, so they’ll welcome the message. And they’ll feel great about your company or brand for being part of the solution.

News of the Week
EPA weighs plastics recycling plan

‘Failure’ or solution? EPA weighs plastics recycling plan
E&E News

This E&E News article discusses the dilemma regulatory agencies face as companies work to find plastic solutions like chemical recycling.
Read more…

How much of your recycling ends up in the landfill?

How much of your recycling actually ends up in the landfill?
NBC News 4

When Americans recycle, they want to feel like they’re doing the right thing, but good intentions don’t always have good outcomes. This NBC News 4 article details how much of peoples’ “wish-cycling” actually ends up in landfills.
Read more…

Shoptivism: Why Consumers (& Job Seekers) Opt In & Out of Today’s Brands

Sustainability is now mainstream and it’s affecting purchase behavior.

Every year we ask Americans if they’ve ever intentionally purchased or not purchased a product or service based on the social or environmental record of the manufacturer. We then ask everyone who says “yes” to name the brand. Those who say “yes” and can give an example of a brand unaided? We call them shoptivists.

But who are these “shoptivists?”

Our latest report answers this question with three distinct consumer profiles, including details on their mental models, their shopping patterns, the messages that resonate, and where to find them.

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About the Author

Suzanne Shelton

Where Suzanne sees opportunity, you can bet results will follow. Drawing on her extensive knowledge of both the advertising world and the energy and environment arena, Suzanne provides unparalleled strategic insights to our clients and to audiences around North America. Suzanne is a guest columnist in multiple publications and websites, such as GreenBiz, and she speaks at around 20 conferences a year, including Sustainable Brands, Fortune Brainstorm E and Green Build.

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