It might be time to throw your preconceptions about recycling in the garbage. A decades-long effort to educate people about recycling has mostly backfired, according to new research.
The study, published last week in Nature Sustainability, found that an overemphasis on recycling has distracted us from better options for preventing waste. In open-ended surveys, Americans overwhelmingly named recycling as the most effective thing they could do to reduce trash in landfills, overlooking more successful strategies — such as generating less waste in the first place.
“Because we have a really hard time imagining what a different, non-disposal-focused system could look like, recycling seems like the best option, right?” said Michaela Barnett, an author of the study and a former civil engineering researcher at the University of Virginia. “And it is better than landfilling, than incinerating, than littering. But people really are defaulting to that over better options, because I think they really don’t see a way out of this system that creates so much trash.”
The study revealed widespread confusion about the relative usefulness of recycling. When asked to rank the Three Rs — “reduce, reuse, recycle” — in order of effectiveness, nearly half of people got the answer wrong. (The phrase is already in the correct order.) They fared better when asked to choose between just two options, waste prevention and recycling, with 80 percent understanding that prevention was more beneficial.
Though Barnett has been “obsessed with trash” her whole life — growing up, she visited recycling centers and made impromptu stops to inspect roadside trash with her mom — she was also once afflicted with “recycling bias,” she says. She attributes the phenomenon to a long-running messaging campaign aimed at getting Americans to take responsibility for their trash. For decades, Keep America Beautiful, a nonprofit backed by corporations including Coca-Cola and McDonald’s, has been running anti-litter and pro-recycling advertisements. The campaign had the effect of shifting the blame for trash pollution to individuals, rather than the companies that designed products to be disposable.
“This has been something that’s really been hammered into us by these corporations for 50 years,” Barnett said. “It’s a very convenient out for them to continue producing and for us to continue consuming without a lot of guilt.”
While Barnett’s study showed that people thought recycling was important, they didn’t necessarily know how to do it correctly. Many people placed plastic bags, disposable coffee cups, and light bulbs into virtual recycling bins — all items that can’t be recycled. It’s not really their fault: Recycling rules are confusing and vary based on where you live. Yogurt containers, for example, aren’t accepted by most municipal recycling programs — and even centers that do take them rarely actually recycle them.
Starting in 1989, oil and gas companies lobbied for state laws mandating that the “chasing arrows” symbol appear on all plastic products, despite serious doubts that the widespread recycling of these products would ever be economically viable. Many items adorned with the chasing arrows can’t be recycled at all. Earlier this year, the Environmental Protection Agency recommended that the Federal Trade Commission ditch the logo because it was deceiving consumers.
People might slowly be catching on: Barnett’s study found that Americans weren’t confident the system was working. Less than 10 percent of all plastic produced globally gets recycled; survey respondents thought that the number was closer to 25 percent, correctly reasoning that most of what goes into the blue bin eventually ends up in the landfill.
So how should we think about recycling? For Barnett, it’s a useful tool, but its usefulness has been blown out of proportion. “Recycling is not a scam, but also not a ‘get out of jail free’ card,” she said. “We really need to be a lot more intentional with the goods we consume and the actions we take, while also putting that onus back on the producers for whom it really belongs.”