A report called Reduce, Reuse, Confuse shows that although Americans are more environmentally concerned than ever, a patchwork system of local policies has confounded consumers and damaged recycling efforts.
According to the study from the Grocery Manufacturers Association, 75 percent of Americans say they have changed their behavior in recent years to be more environmentally conscious, taking steps to recycle more frequently, buy sustainable products or reduce waste.
But despite the growing consumer consciousness of environmental issues, there remains a considerable gap between aspiration and reality.
92 percent of respondents are unsure or believe anything with a plastic resin label could be recycled curbside, although only two of the seven codes are consistently recyclable. Another clear disconnect: the codes are designed for employees at sorting facilities, not consumers.
More than half of Americans said frequently unrecyclable items like plastic bags, to-go coffee cups and plastic straws could be recycled.
Item Yes, recyclable No, not recyclable Not sure
Plastic bags 60 33 8
To-go coffee cups 55 28 17
Plastic straws 53 30 16
“Confusion is not a sustainable system,” GMA President and CEO Geoff Freeman said. “America’s recycling future cannot depend on a patchwork system that undermines good intentions with bad policy.”
Compounding these issues further is the labyrinth of recycling policies employed throughout the United States — thousands of municipalities set their own recycling rules. Though more than 90 percent of respondents say they feel they know their local recycling rules, fewer than six-in-ten reported researching them.
Consumers largely support a more uniform system — 74 percent surveyed said that more standardized rules at the national or state level would bring more clarity to recycling.
Respondents indicated that recycling is more confusing than the following tasks:
Building Ikea furniture—26 percent
Doing your taxes—23 percent
The stock market 22 percent
Understanding the opposite sex—20 percent
It is not confusing—4 percent
All of the above—1 percent
Even seemingly innocuous mistakes—like tossing a non-recyclable item into the bin—can backfire, ultimately causing more harm than good, sending everything to the landfill.
Forty percent of Americans are “aspirational recyclers” who recycle items that they’re unsure will meet the requirements in hopes that any unrecyclable items will be later sorted. That number goes up to 44 percent for those who say they are very environmentally concerned and to 49 percent for Millennials.
The consumer packaged goods (CPG) industry is working to meet the needs of consumers and the environment, with all of the 25-largest CPG companies committing to increasing recyclable content, minimizing packaging or reusing material. Further, 80 percent of those companies have committed to producing fully recyclable, reusable or compostable packaging by 2030 at the latest.
“The industry is evolving to meet the needs of consumers and the planet, but it cannot succeed in a vacuum,” said Meghan Stasz, GMA’s VP of sustainability and packaging. “Wildly different local rules coupled with a complex network of codes and growing costs of recycling programs are contributing to a broken system that will require more than just private industry to resolve.”
Shifts in the global economy, notably in China, are forcing cities across America to reduce or suspend recycling programs that are no longer economically viable. And while historically China accepted contaminated recycling loads, the country’s new policy limiting contamination to a near impossible 0.5 percent standard caused the value of recycled material to plummet.
Going beyond its rigorous commitments, CPG companies are slimming down packaging, piloting refillable containers and even using beach plastic to make shampoo bottles.
“Few industries are able to adapt as quickly to consumers as CPG,” said GMA President and CEO Geoff Freeman. “The CPG industry is a leading force for change, but there is no panacea — no person, industry or government that will solve this alone. We want all stakeholders at the table, ready to make the hard decisions that will create lasting change.”
For more information about the study, click here.