Charleston runner recycling running outdoor

I have a good friend, Bill, who I know through our local Sierra Club group. Bill has walked the talk as an environmentalist for over 40 years. There are few people I know more passionate or committed to taking action on behalf of conservation issues.  So, it’s a little disturbing when he periodically questions the value of separating recyclables.

This earnest question was also at the core of an exchange of professional listserv messages I had with a university sustainability officer recently. The person cited a 2019 NPR Planet Money investigative story that said in as many words that plastics recycling was a fraud, promoted by the petroleum industry and consumer brand companies to distract from the inherent wastefulness they profit from. The story argued that not only was the recycling system broken and inadequate to managing the flood of single-use plastic packaging, but that it failed on its own merits – that collecting recyclable plastics required more energy and had a greater impact on the environment than simply landfilling them. To be clear, the story had elements of profound truth. The industries behind single-use plastics have long used recycling as a cover for promoting greater consumption. There are situations where recycling makes no sense economically or environmentally.

But at its heart, the Planet Money piece was a willfully simplistic take on a complex issue, more interested in skewering a sacred cow than reporting an honest story. I won’t go into a full critique, but here’s a rebuttal written at the time by the Northeast Recycling Council (NERC). And if you have your own nagging doubts about the value of plastics recycling, multiple life cycle analysis (LCA) studies have documented how, on balance, recycling results in a much lower carbon and environmental footprint than relying on virgin plastics. Here are a few of these for reference: 2018 APR lifecycle study, meta-analysis of plastic waste management studies and the research behind EPA’s WARM model.

But seriously? An NPR hit-job on recycling? Sustainability professionals ready to toss bottles in the trash?  Watch your back, Mom. You too, apple pie.


Recycling Has a Perception Issue

The truth, of course, is that recycling has had a perception issue for a while now.  Like Hands Across America, another movement that grabbed the public’s attention in the mid-1980’s, the sense of urgency that drove people to action has been replaced by a vague memory that it was related to a good cause… something about saving landfills, I think. Over time, endless confusion about how to sort items, and the evergreen conspiracy belief that it all gets thrown out anyway have had a corrosive effect on public attitudes. Even within the environmental movement, there’s been a tendency to view recycling as your grandfather’s version of sustainability – nice, inoffensive and largely irrelevant.

Then along came the China’s National Sword policy in 2018. In addition to sowing chaos with commodity markets and local collection programs, the ripple effects of China’s clampdown also exposed to a mass audience the recycling industry’s dirty laundry about contamination. The NPR Planet Money story was just one of dozens reported across the media landscape, from the New York Times to Parks & Recreation Magazine, declaring the death of recycling. Worse still were the local stories that cast recycling as a money-losing drag on municipal budgets and reported instances of unmarketable recyclables going to the landfill. You remember them. It was painful.

Under the best of circumstances, this “broken system” narrative has increased public confusion and further weakened the personal commitment of much of the public. This blog was inspired in part by a recent column Chaz Miller wrote for Waste 360, which in turn cites polling data from the Shelton Group, a sustainability marketing firm. Among other things, they found roughly half of Americans believe the recycling system is “not working well.”  Asked in 2019 if they were confident the items they put in a recycling bin actually got recycled, 19% said no. The same question in 2020 came back at 23%. Last year it was 30%.  This is a big problem.

The typical person’s knowledge of recycling works in funny ways. The scant attention most give the topic means they absorb only a small range of information. But that limited knowledge lives on forever (I understand they said to take caps off bottles, but it’s changed and you should now leave them on… No, really). Behavioral research has made clear that people don’t have to be passionate environmentalists to recycle. But they do have to feel it serves some purpose. Like my Sierra Club friend, nobody wants to feel their effort is a waste of time.  People may not abandon their curbside bin altogether, but recycling is like voter turnout.  People flock to the polls when they’re energized, and hit or miss when they’re not. There’s a very real risk that the impressions made over the last few years will persist in people’s minds for a long time to come.

The irony, of course, is that we’re in a much better place than in 2019. As they do every time, recycling markets have come roaring back. Cities that shut down curbside programs two years ago are restarting them now. Industry stakeholders are making a concerted and sustained effort to address contamination. For the first time in decades, there is substantive policy action at the state and federal level to address barriers that have left diversion mired in the 30% range. As climate change forces the world to grapple with the carbon impact of refining virgin resources, recovered materials will become increasingly competitive. Recycling still has its flaws, but it’s repeatedly proven its resiliency and given us genuine reason to believe in its future growth. None of this matters, however, if the public that feeds the system isn’t feeling the mojo.


Tarnished Brand

Recycling has a tarnished brand. And when you have a tarnished brand, you need a strategy to rehabilitate it. That strategy has to recognize and provide a message to counter the perceived weaknesses of the brand. In recycling’s case, I’d argue these boil down to three core perceptions:

  1. Recycling is broken. There’s no point to separating items because they’ll most likely get thrown out anyway.
  2. Recycling is an economic drain: It was supposed to make money, but it turns out it would be cheaper just to throw everything in the landfill.
  3. Does recycling actually help the environment? Maybe it saves some trees, but it seems worse if recycling is clogging oceans and rivers in developing countries with contaminated waste. Besides, they now have “advanced” technologies that will take care of it.

I’d go an extra step and argue that behind these perceptions is a deeper, unconscious sense of having been let down. For decades people have diligently followed direction, segregating their waste with a belief that they were doing their part. To then learn that recycling is broken or worse, a fraud, it’s only natural to feel a little burned. Rational or not, that matters.


Changing the Tune

I’d argue that the first of these perceptions, the “recycling is broken” narrative, is the most damaging and urgent to address. Counteracting this requires telling the story of recycling, showing what is actually happening in a way that makes it real. It needs to show the different steps in the process and the various industry players – the haulers, sorters, processors, manufacturers, etc. – who are dependent on recycling and whose own efforts ensure that our individual action has meaning.

Keep America Beautiful ran an under-appreciated PSA campaign several years ago with the Ad Council called I Want To Be Recycled. The series of TV, radio and billboard ads gave recyclables an identity with aspirations to turned into things like park benches, carpets, or the steel used to build a football stadium. The campaign was built around focus group research showing people were more responsive to recycling with the knowledge of what happens to recyclable items than they were with alternate messages that used humor or simply conveyed “how” and “why” information. Knowing what items get turned into validates that our effort serves a purpose, that it leads to a tangible result. This was backed up by separate research published in 2019 that showed a direct impact of the “product transformation” message on increased recycling rates. To learn about this, read an earlier blog reviewing this paper. I think the more we can localize this message, showing the MRF where items are taken, how they get sorted, where commodities get sent, and what they’re turned into, the more this information can transform recycling from an abstract concept into a concrete reality that tackles head-on the creeping “it all gets thrown out” perception.

To the second point about economics, we need to pull recycling out of the narrow box that media stories often place it in, to show the full picture. Recycling collections aren’t free and they don’t generate a profit… just like every other basic city services or building operations. We don’t judge the value of police services on whether they pay their own way, and recycling’s value shouldn’t be measured exclusively by the lowest-cost option to makes waste go away. In any given state or province, recycling generates thousands of jobs and tens of millions of dollars in economic activity. It sustains entire ecosystems of private businesses, including manufacturing industries that contribute tens of millions of dollars in tax revenue. That value is real, and you get virtually none of it when you simply dump waste into a hole in the ground. And to the extent local jurisdictions are forced into hard choices, and I get it – decision makers have to deal with the budget reality before them — the talking point to reinforce with the public is not simply the cost of recycling, but the question of why taxpayers are responsible to foot the bill for the packaging decisions of consumer product companies.

On the last point about the environmental benefits of recycling, the general public simply needs to be reassured they are real and meaningful. What gets recycled isn’t transformed into greenhouse gas emissions seeping from landfills. Making new items out of recycled materials prevents the need to mine /drill/ log and process virgin resources, which causes far higher greenhouse gas emissions. But beyond this, we need to keep it short and sweet. “Save the earth” messages cause eyes to glaze over, and there’s plenty of evidence to show it does not drive improved recycling behavior.


Call to Action

There’s a lot of effort currently being made, justifiably, to communicate a “how” and “what” message to the public. But knowledge is only a pre-condition for proper recycling, it doesn’t mean people will act on it.  And equally important, not all contamination is caused by confusion or a lack of knowledge. A lot of incorrect sorting is rooted in ambivalence. The recycling industry as a whole has been slow to recognize a basic truth that consumer product marketing folks long ago realized. Humans are not rational creatures. We like to think our actions are driven by information and reasoning, but below the surface there are often impulses pulling the strings, guided by social cues or emotional reactions like fear or excitement or disappointment. Without taking the focus off “how” and “what” education, we need to recognize the crises of faith around recycling, and make room for public messaging that validates the effort that people make.