More Recycling Education Needed

By George Stubbs

America Recycles Day (November 15) has come and gone. Of course, the Melrose Recycling Committee believes that every day should be America Recycles Day, but this year, the occasion came with some disappointing news for those who believe that recycling is a key step on the road to building a healthier, more sustainable economy.

Specifically, young Americans may not be as “green” as we thought, or as we’d like to believe. According to a Harris Poll survey conducted earlier in November for the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries (ISRI), younger Americans—those between the ages of 18 to 34—are less likely to say they always recycle than Americans who are 35 or older (33% versus 48%). In addition, that younger cohort is less likely to believe that recycling is a socially responsible thing to do, that it’s critical to reducing energy consumption, and that it will help reduce the need for landfill space, which is certainly getting squeezed.

Apparently, we have a lot more educating to do.

At least the younger generation is wishing they recycled more—or so they say in the survey. But wishing doesn’t make it so. We have to continue to make it easier to recycle and to ensure that the benefits are well understood, to the point that recycling becomes natural thing to do for everybody.

In announcing the results of the survey, ISRI President summed up where we are, and why the current situation isn’t satisfactory. “Over the last several decades communities have strived to make recycling easier through curbside pickup, drop off locations, convenient public cans located near trash cans, recycling drives, and more. There are corporate buy-back programs and in-store drop-offs for recyclables as well. That is why it is so disappointing and shocking to see young people not fully understanding the value of recycling. Clearly, more needs to be done both to encourage recycling and better comprehend why younger generations aren’t seeing the energy, environmental, and economic benefits that recycling provides.”

Here are the key findings of the survey:

  • An overwhelming majority of Americans (94%) say they recycle, but those ages 35+ (48%) are significantly more likely than those ages 18-34 (33%) to say they always recycle. Those ages 65+ (54%) are also more likely to say this than those ages 35-44 (43%).
  • A majority (68%) of Americans believe recycling is the right thing to do, but the percentage decreases as age goes down, with only 62% of adults aged 18 to 34 holding the belief compared to 78% of adults aged 65 or older.
  • More than half of Americans say recycling is the socially responsible thing to do (55%), but older adults (over 65) are more likely than those aged 18 to 34 to believe this (61% vs 53%, respectively).
  • 40% of Americans believe recycling is critical to reduce energy consumption, but older adults are more likely than those ages 18 to 34 to say this (46% vs 36%, respectively).
  • Some Americans have doubts about recycling, as 26% say they are not always certain if an item is recyclable and 6% say they don’t believe the items they set aside for recycling are actually recycled. Younger Americans aged 18 to 34 (33%) are more likely than those aged 35 to 64 (22%) to say they are not always certain if an item is recyclable.
  • More than three in five (62%) Americans agree that if a product is not easy or convenient to recycle, they probably would not recycle it.

Those last two bullet points are worth an extra look. The belief that “recycled” objects may not really be recycled is possibly genuine in many cases, but one wonders if it occasionally serves as an excuse not to do anything. We’ve heard these excuses before, most recently during the campaign to expand the Massachusetts bottle deposit bill– “litterers gonna litter,” argued some who opposed the expansion.

More importantly, however, recycling proponents have to work harder to make recycling more convenient. Many of us will go the extra mile to set up recycling routines in our households, but to get recycling rates where we want them to be, we need to make recycling as easy as possible, so that people can make it part of their routine during their very busy weeks.

Recycling doesn’t need to be challenging or time-consuming. But learning more about it does require a little bit of effort, as does anything worthwhile. The goal of the Melrose Recycling Committee is to help the city’s residents, and especially their children, to find easy, effective ways to play their part in building a “circular” economy—one that saves scarce resources by returning our wastes to productive use. In the end, we all benefit.