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In the U.S., decades of recycling messages


Disclosure Statement

Michaela Barnett, the owner and founder of KnoxFill, is a company that sells refillable and bulk household and personal care products.

Shahzeen Attari has received funding from the National Science Foundation.

Leidy Klutz and Patrick I. Hancock have not disclosed any relevant affiliations other than their academic appointment. They do not consult or own shares of companies or organizations that could benefit from the article.


The Conversation U.S. members Indiana University and the University of Virginia provide funding.

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You just finished drinking a cup of coffee in your favorite café. You’re now facing a garbage bin, a recycle bin, and a compost container. What is the best way to recycle your cup?

this is often the wrong decision. Most paper coffee cups have a thin plastic liner to help them hold liquids. This makes it difficult to separate the materials and recycle them.

The most sustainable option doesn’t exist in the garbage bin. This happens before the disposable cup is even handed to you.

We examine, in our research on Waste BehaviorSustainabilityEngineering Design, and Decision Making, what U.S. citizens understand about the effectiveness of different waste management methods and which strategies they prefer. We found in two surveys conducted in the U.S. in October 2019 and March 2022 that people tend to overlook waste reduction and recycling. This is what we call recycling bias and reduction negligence.

Our results reveal that decades of efforts to educate the U.S. population about recycling have been successful in some areas but not in others. The efforts made recycling a viable option for consumers but at the expense of other sustainable alternatives. It hasn’t made people better recyclers.

The recycling rules in the United States are very different, so it is up to consumers to decide what they should do.

Global waste crisis

Experts and activists agree that human waste is overwhelming and unsustainable. Microplastics pollute the remotest regions of the Earth and accumulate in the bodies and tissues of humans and animals.

The production and disposal of goods are a major cause of greenhouse gas emissions and a threat to public health, particularly for communities that receive large amounts of waste. Even when plastic is recycled, new research shows that it can produce shocking amounts of microplastics.

In June 2023, the United Nations will convene talks with representatives of governments from around the world to draft a legally-binding pact that will help curb harmful plastic waste. Meanwhile, many U.S. cities and states are 

Michaela Barnett et al. have explained the current U.S. EPA waste management hierarchy in parentheses. The three R’s framework is shown in a visual way (right). Michaela Barnett, et al., CC BY-ND

In the familiar hierarchy of waste management, people are encouraged to “Reduce. Reuse. Recycle” in that order. It is more sustainable to create items that can then be recycled than it is to burn them in an incinerator or bury them in a dump. However, this still uses energy and resources. Reducing waste production conserves resources and prevents negative environmental effects throughout the life of a product.

R’s Out of Place

Participants completed a series of questions and tasks in our surveys to express their opinions on different waste management strategies. Participants overwhelmingly chose recycling and other downstream approaches to solve environmental problems associated with waste when asked open-ended questions.

The four strategies in the Environmental Protection Agency’s hierarchy of waste management were also ranked by the people from the most environmentally friendly to the least. The order is source reduction and reuse, recycling, and composting, energy recovery (such as burning trash for energy), and treatment and disposal in landfills. Over three-quarters of participants (78%) ranked the strategies in the wrong order.

Participants did better when asked to order the options of reduce/reuse/recycle in the same manner, but almost half (46%) misordered this popular phrase.

We asked the participants to select between two options: waste prevention or recycling. Over 80% of the participants this time understood that preventing was better than recycling.

Recycling is not a good idea

Our participants chose recycling as their default waste management strategy. However, they didn’t do it well.

It’s not surprising that this is the case, as the U.S. recycling program places the responsibility on the consumer to keep contaminants and recyclables separate. The standard for what can be recycled varies from one community to another. This standard may also change as new products and recycled material markets are developed.

In our second study, we asked participants to sort everyday consumer items into virtual bins for recycling, composting, and trashing. They were then asked how confident they felt about their decisions. People placed common contaminants such as plastic bags (58%), coffee cups (46%), and light bulbs (26%) in the virtual bins erroneously and confidently. The correct answer for some materials, like aluminum foil and cardboard, can depend on the capacity of the local waste management system.

This is called wish cycling, which involves placing non-recyclable materials in the recycling stream with the hope that they will get recycled. Wishcycling causes problems and costs for recyclers who must sort out the materials.

Despite their strong belief in recycling, our participants weren’t sure that it would actually work. In our first survey, participants were asked to estimate the fraction of plastic that has been recycled ever since plastic production began. According to an estimate that is widely cited, the answer was only 9%. According to our respondents, 25% of plastic was recycled. This is higher than the expert estimates, but it’s still a small amount. They correctly stated that the majority of plastics end up in landfills or the environment.

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Jane S. King

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