By Sarah Cahan
Americans generated more than 250 million tons of trash in 2012, according to the EPA’s most recent information. That’s nearly 4.5 pounds of trash per person, per day.
But we’re only recycling about a third (35 percent) of the waste we generate.
There’s no doubt about it – America should recycle more, and it seems consumers are trying to do their part. In fact, nearly three-quarters (72 percent) of Americans recycle consistently at home, according to the 2014 Cone Communications Recycling in the Home Survey, in partnership with the Johnson & Johnson Family of Consumer Companies as part of its Care To Recycle program.
Just six percent say they recycle only if it’s convenient. So if the majority of Americans are recycling, why are we still throwing away so much of what could be recycled?
Hearts in the Right Place, But Recyclables Are Not
Turns out, Americans may be recycling incorrectly.
Although their hearts are in the right place – 42 percent of Americans say they recycle because of genuine concern for the environment – their recyclables don’t always end up in the proper bin…or get recycled at all. More than half of consumers will only recycle if they are certain the item is recyclable or is clearly labeled as such:
- 28 percent of consumers say they recycle only the items they already know are recyclable
- 26 percent recycle as many items as they can even if they’re unsure the items are recyclable
- 21 percent recycle only the items that are clearly labeled as such
What’s more, because of a lack of understanding or ability to easily access information, Americans are throwing out, rather than recycling, the majority of the waste we produce every year. Consumers who are unsure what can be recycled are unlikely to make an extra effort to get the necessary information. Just one-in-five will do additional research to find out if and how an item is recyclable. The mindset appears to be “when in doubt, throw it out.”
Recognizing the Barriers
Meaningfully increasing America’s recycling rate requires a broad collaboration among individuals and both the public and private sectors. Consumers recognize they can make changes in their own homes to improve recycling, but they are also looking to their communities to make greater investments in recycling resources, including:
- Offering a recycling program or center (20 percent)
- Making recycling more cost or time-efficient (20 percent)
But solving the recycling problem requires more than just community resources. Companies unquestionably play a critical role in motivating the American public to recycle more. Consumers look to companies to provide more education around how products can be recycled. With more than a quarter (28 percent) of Americans saying they would recycle more if companies better indicated which products can be recycled, the power of pushing this information through multiple channels (e.g., on-pack, social media, websites) simply can’t be ignored.
Turning Insights Into Action: How Companies Can Help
When it comes to recycling, it takes a village. No one entity can solve the issue on its own –consumers, communities and companies all play a role in improving America’s recycling rates. For their part, companies hold tremendous power in helping educate consumers about how to handle their products and packaging post-consumption.
- Put it On-Pack: Consumers want to recycle, but they’re not willing to go above and beyond to find out if a product is recyclable. The more information companies can include on the package about a product’s recyclability, the greater chance it will end up in the recycling bin. Although on-pack real estate is in high demand, this is a powerful avenue for behavior change.
- Broaden Horizons: Nearly a third (28 percent) of consumers will only recycle products they already know are recyclable. Companies can help move the needle by broadening consumer awareness about the types of products that are recyclable, beyond the typical plastic bottle or newspaper – for example, Johnson & Johnson’s Care to Recycle program website features a cheat sheet on what kinds of bathroom products can and can’t be recycled. As consumers learn more about product recyclability, they’ll be more likely to put more items in the right bins.
- Remember, Cash is King: It’s no surprise 41 percent of consumers said they’d recycle more if they could earn money or rewards. Providing incentives can be a powerful motivator, especially with difficult-to-recycle products like electronics or appliances. Companies can create product buy-back programs, offering consumers perks in exchange for old products, making sure items stay out of landfills and make it into proper recycling channels. Alternatively, companies can work with communities to provide disincentives to not recycling, such as garbage bag fees.
- Educate to Influence: Children can be powerful recycling advocates in the home, with half of parents saying their children educate the rest of the family about the benefits of recycling. And kids are getting this information from school – two-thirds of parents say their children learned about the positive impacts of recycling while in the classroom. Companies can capitalize on kids’ recycling savvy by providing lesson plans or partnering with environmental nonprofits to engage kids, such as Capri Sun’s partnership with TerraCycle.
- Appeal to the Environment: Concern for the environment was the number one reason consumers said they recycled – so appeal to consumers’ tree-hugging side. It can often be hard to visualize how one small product can make an impact on the world around us, but companies can help show consumers just how much they’re making a difference. Companies can equate a product recycled to a tree saved or show how a product can be remade into something else. By making it real for consumers, companies can motivate them to recycle even more.
How have you seen companies moving the needle on consumer recycling? Let us know on Twitter using #ConeCSR!
About the Author:
As Cone Communications’ Research & Insights senior insights supervisor, Sarah Cahan drives the creation and execution of industry-leading corporate social responsibility research and analysis, including the 2013 Cone Communications/Echo Global CSR Study and the 2012 Cone Communications Corporate Social Return Trend Tracker. Her team produces the award-winning Prove Your Purpose CSR newsletter and blog, which offer cutting-edge trends and real-world best practices to hundreds of Fortune 500 and nonprofit executives every week. With nearly a decade of communications and CSR experience, Sarah brings forward-thinking consumer insights and corporate implications to life for clients and thought leaders alike.