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Speaking Sustainably

Americans love recycling — they have no idea how it works

Many Americans have lost faith that our recycling system actually recycles anything. And it matters that they think the system is broken.

Man stands in front of crushed trash

Recycling is usually a win at the polls but many people still think it is broken. Image via Shutterstock/Chanchai phetdikhai

If you’ve been following our posts and talks, then you’re already up to speed on this: Americans love recycling. It’s the No. 1 thing they think companies should be doing to positively affect purchase decisions by the consumer. And 85 percent 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 percent 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 percent) could get as far as, "I’m taken to a recycling center." Nearly one in three (31 percent) believe the next step of the process is "I am sorted/separated based on the type of product," and 32 percent say "I am turned into a new item." A smaller portion (15 percent) is pessimistic about the process, saying some version of, "I go to a landfill/I get mixed in with other trash." Most 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 percent of us do believe that recycling helps the environment, 49 percent of us say the recycling system in America is not working well, and 30 percent 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 percent of us were not confident that our recyclables were actually getting recycled; in 2020, it was 23 percent.

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" (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, 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.

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The Shelton Group

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