As you know, all of us here at Plastic Place are big on recycling. Recycling is great for the environment, it’s good for the economy, and there’s even something a bit magical about it: recycling delivers on the promise of alchemy, turning something worthless into something valuable.The benefits are so great that we’re surprised recycling isn’t universal yet. In fact, it’s not even close. Even now, in 2015, plenty of people just chuck everything into the same landfill-bound bag and call it a day. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, while an estimated 75% of waste is recyclable, in the USA only about 30% makes it to the recycling plant.
Some reasons for recycling resistance
So why are Americans so terrible about recycling? The technology is there, and it’s getting better all the time. We’re constantly finding new ways to streamline the process and make more from less. So what’s going wrong? The reasons are pretty predictable: survey after survey reveals the same roadblocks to widespread recycling:
Confusion. What items are recyclable and which ones can be recycled together? There’s no universal code or guide, and standards vary wildly.
Inconvenience. People are busy. It’s easy to get lazy about recycling: rinsing, sorting, and remembering collection days all take time and energy.
Lack of motivation. While everyone theoretically cares about the environment, the rewards of recycling and the risks of landfills are long-term and deferred. Our brains are terrible at prioritizing future outcomes over immediate inconvenience.
Because we understand why recycling falls so short in this country, it’s not difficult to track down the actions that will make a big difference. But change needs to happen at higher levels before any real shift can take place.
Education. We all vaguely understand that recycling is good, but education needs to go much further than that. Instead of focusing on the far-off benefits of a cleaner environment, it’s important to teach people about the immediate payoffs of recycling. Money talks: recycling generates profit for municipal projects, therefore campaigns which focus on how recycling can fund new amenities for the local community will get people involved.
Incentives. Speaking of money, there are plenty of ways to use cash to encourage people to recycle. On the carrot side of the equation, governments can offer property tax breaks for regular recycling. In the UK, some programs even offer “points” for recycled goods which can be used in local stores. On the stick side, fees and penalties for failing to recycle are unpopular but effective motivators.
Facilitation. Just make the process as simple and easy as possible for people. Make recycling free. Provide bins for recycling at no cost, and send SMS messages to remind people to put the bins out for collection. Keep sorting to a minimum: some places already allow every type of recyclable to be sent off together, and the sorting happens at the plant. Some cities in Texas have taken the responsibility and effort out of citizens' hands all together by implementing a “one bin for all” policy. Recyclables, compostables, and landfill trash all go out in the same garbage can, and the municipality handles all the sorting.
In spite of huge advances in recycling technology and public awareness, the number of people recycling hasn’t really changed much since the 1990s. What’s needed are more practical everyday solutions which will encourage citizens to "buy in." Getting more people on board with recycling is really up to local governments. If this issue matters to you, it’s worth letting your local politicians know.