Americans have no idea how to recycle. Many even find the process to be more confusing than doing their taxes.
That’s the upshot of a new study by the Grocery Manufacturers Association, which found that 92% of respondents were unclear about what they should put into the recycling bin. People either think that everything marked with a plastic resin label is good for curbside recycling or they’re unsure about sorting recyclables in general, according to the study.
Twenty-three percent of study respondents said they found recycling to be more confusing than doing their taxes. (Considering that most people do their taxes only once a year but they probably throw stuff out every day, it’s a wonder no one’s come up with a TurboTax for sorting trash.) Twenty-six percent said recycling was more confusing than building IKEA furniture.
Just 9.1% of plastic gets recycled in the U.S., probably because hardly anyone knows what they’re doing. In the GMA study, 60% of participants said they believed that plastic shopping bags can go in curbside recycling (they cannot), while 55% said they believed plastic straws could be recycled in this way (also not true).
Who could blame consumers for being confused about recycling rules in the U.S.? Plastic products that bear a triangle-shaped recycling symbol, bewilderingly, aren’t always recyclable.
Plus, because there’s no national law that mandates recycling in this country, rules around recycling vary by state. These differing regulations make it difficult for both companies and consumers to achieve sustainability together, says Meghan Stasz, the vice president of packaging and sustainability at GMA.
“Thousands of recycling programs use dramatically different technology,” Stasz wrote in a recent LinkedIn post. “Some deploy optical sorters, magnets and fans to sort by weight and material type. Others use workers to hand-pick higher value material from a conveyor belt. The result? What’s recyclable in one town is prohibited in the next.”
Improving these statistics might be difficult, but it isn’t impossible. In Germany, which has been dubbed the world’s leading recycling nation, ubiquitous color-coded bins educate citizens about what belongs where. There’s even a brown bin for organic waste, like food.
While businesses of all sizes try to incorporate better sustainability practices into their production, real change won’t be possible unless every aspect of waste management gets on board. “If consumers don’t recycle, [packaged goods] companies can’t reuse material,” wrote Stasz. “If companies only design packaging to protect the product and not with the full lifecycle in mind, we wind up with packaging that can’t be recycled or recovered. If local systems aren’t using best practices and educating residents, participation rates fall and municipalities struggle to afford recycling programs.”
Better waste management wouldn’t just benefit the planet; it makes good economic sense. Research from Tellus Institute with Sound Resource Management found that improved recycling programs could lead to 2.3 million more jobs by 2030, close to three times as many jobs than existed in the industry in 2008. Sounds like a win-win.
This story is part of a series on plastic waste, funded by SC Johnson. All content is editorially independent, with no influence or input from the company.