Decades of public messages about recycling in the United States have displaced more sustainable ways to manage waste

You just finished a cup of coffee at your favorite cafe. You are now faced with a trash can, a recycling bin and a compost bin. What’s the most planet-friendly thing to do with your cup?

Many of us would opt for separate collection, but it’s often the wrong choice. To hold liquids, most paper coffee cups are made with a thin plastic lining, making it difficult to separate these materials and recycle them.

In fact, the most sustainable option doesn’t come in the trash can. It happens earlier, before you’re handed a disposable cup in the first place.

In our research on waste behavior, sustainability, engineering design and decision making, we examine what US residents understand about the effectiveness of different waste management strategies and which of these strategies they prefer. In two US nationwide surveys we conducted in October 2019 and March 2022, we found that people are neglecting waste reduction and reuse in favor of recycling. We call this trend recycling bias and reduction abandonment.

Our findings show that a decades-long effort to educate the US public about recycling has succeeded in some ways but failed in others. These efforts have made recycling an option that consumers consider important, but at the expense of more sustainable options. And it hasn’t made people more effective recyclers.

Recycling rules vary widely in the United States, leaving it up to consumers to figure out what to do.

A global waste crisis

Experts and advocates largely agree that humans are generating waste worldwide at unmanageable and unsustainable levels. Microplastics are polluting the remotest regions of the Earth and accumulating in the bodies of humans and animals.

The production and disposal of goods is a major source of greenhouse gas emissions and a public health threat, especially for vulnerable communities that receive large amounts of waste. New research suggests that even when plastic is recycled, it produces staggering amounts of microplastic pollution.

Given the scale and urgency of this problem, the United Nations convened talks in June 2023 with government representatives from around the world to begin drafting a legally binding pact aimed at tackling harmful plastic waste. Meanwhile, many US cities and states are banning single-use plastic products or limiting their use.

On 30 March 2023, the United Nations declared the first International Day of Zero Waste to raise awareness of the importance of zero waste and responsible consumption and production.

Upstream and downstream solutions

Experts have long recommended addressing waste by prioritizing source reduction strategies that prevent waste creation in the first place, rather than trying to manage and mitigate its impact later. The US Environmental Protection Agency and other major environmental organizations such as the United Nations Environment Program use a framework called the waste management hierarchy that ranks strategies from most to least environmentally preferred.

Graphs showing waste management options, moving from upstream (production) to downstream (disposal).
The current US EPA waste management hierarchy (left, with explanations in parentheses by Michaela Barnett, et al.) and a visual representation of the Three Rs framework (right).
Michaela Barnett, et al.CC BY-ND

The familiar waste management hierarchy urges people to reduce, reuse, recycle, in that order. Creating objects that can be recycled is better from a sustainability standpoint than burning them in an incinerator or burying them in a landfill, but it still consumes energy and resources. Conversely, reducing waste generation conserves natural resources and avoids other negative environmental impacts throughout the life of the products.

Rs out of place

In our surveys, participants completed a series of questions and tasks that elicited their opinions on different disposal strategies. In response to open-ended questions about the most effective way to reduce landfill waste or solve the environmental problems associated with waste, participants overwhelmingly cited recycling and other downstream strategies.

We also asked people to rank the four strategies in the EPA waste management hierarchy, from most to least environmentally preferred. In that order, they include source reduction and reuse; recycling and composting; energy recovery, such as burning waste to generate energy; and treatment and disposal, typically in a landfill. More than three out of four participants (78%) sorted strategies incorrectly.

When asked to rank reduce/reuse/recycle options equally, participants fared a little better, but nearly half (46%) still misordered the popular phrase.

Finally, we asked participants to choose only between two options: waste prevention and recycling. This time, more than 80% of participants understood that preventing waste was much better than recycling.

Bad recycling

While our participants preferred recycling as a waste management strategy, they didn’t execute very well.

This isn’t surprising, since the current US recycling system places the burden on consumers to separate recyclables and keep contaminants out of the trash. There are many variations in what can be recycled from community to community and this standard can change frequently as new products are introduced and markets for recycled materials change.

Our second study asked participants to sort common consumer goods into virtual recycling, compost and trash bins and then rate how confident they were with their choices. Many people have placed common recycling contaminants, including plastic bags (58%), disposable coffee cups (46%) and light bulbs (26%), mistakenly and often safely into virtual recycling bins.

This is known as wishcycling which places non-recyclable items into the recycling stream in the hope or belief that they will be recycled. Wishcycling creates additional costs and hassles for recyclers, who have to sort through materials, and sometimes results in otherwise otherwise recyclable materials being landfilled or incinerated instead.

While our participants were strongly leaning towards recycling, they weren’t sure it would work. Participants in our first survey were asked to estimate what fraction of plastic has been recycled since plastic production began. According to one widely cited estimate, the answer is only 9%. Our respondents thought that 25% more plastic was recycled than expert estimates, but still a low amount. And they correctly argued that most of it ended up in landfills and the environment.

Enable consumers to reduce waste

Post-consumer waste is the result of a long supply chain with environmental impacts at every stage. However, US policy and corporate discourse focus on consumers as the major source of waste, as the term post-consumer waste implies.

Other approaches place more responsibility on manufacturers by requiring them to take back their products for disposal, cover recycling costs, and design and produce goods that are easy to recycle effectively. These approaches are used in some industries in the United States, including lead-acid automotive batteries and consumer electronics, but are largely voluntary or mandated at the state and local levels.

When we asked participants in our second study where change might have the greatest impact and where they felt they could have the greatest impact as individuals, they correctly focused on the upstream interventions. But they felt they could only influence the system through what they chose to buy and how they subsequently disposed of it, in other words, by acting as consumers, not citizens.

As waste-related pollution piles up around the world, companies continue to shame and blame consumers rather than reduce the amount of disposable products they create. In our view, laundering is not a get-out-of-jail-card for overproduction and consumption of goods, and it is time for the US to stop treating it as such.

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