In a study conducted by Michaela Barnett, Leidy Klotz, Patrick I. Hancock, and Shahzeen Attari, which focused on waste behavior, sustainability, engineering design, and decision-making, they explored the understanding and preferences of U.S. residents regarding waste management strategies.
Through two nationwide surveys in the U.S. done in October 2019 and March 2022, the study found that people tend to prioritize recycling over reducing waste and reusing. The researchers termed this phenomenon “recycling bias” and “reduction neglect.”
Results from the study suggest that due to the constant efforts to paint recycling in a good light, it has now become more important to consumers. Unfortunately, it hasn’t made recycling more effective to tackle waste issues. In addition, recycling regulations vary widely from one area to another, leaving consumers unsure about what to do with their waste.
Experts and advocates emphasize the urgency of addressing the global waste issue by putting forward strategies to reduce source, aiming to prevent waste creation rather than managing its consequences.
This approach is in line with the waste management hierarchy, which we all are familiar with: “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle.”
Reducing waste, as we know, conserves natural resources and reduces environmental impacts. However, in the waste surveys, participants showed a preference for downstream strategies like recycling when asked about effective waste reduction methods. They often mixed strategies in the waste management hierarchy, with 78% ranking them incorrectly.
Then, although participants understood the importance of waste prevention when directly compared to recycling, they still struggled to rank the three “reduce/reuse/recycle” options accurately.
Furthermore, the study revealed that many participants did a lot of “wishcycling,” an action of putting non-recyclable items in recycling bins, hoping they would be recycled despite not being entirely sure if the recycling would actually take place. The reality is that this practice leads to additional costs and complications for recyclers.
The study highlighted the need for interventions for recycling bias as well as wishcycling, with the addition of adding more consumer awareness in order to better address post-consumer waste and its environmental impact.
On the other hand, study participants felt that they have limited ability to change what has happened and what is happening beyond their purchasing decisions and waste disposal actions.
Therefore, the study also criticized big players who put the blame onto consumers instead of reducing disposable product production. The researchers argued that recycling shouldn’t serve as a justification for excessive production and consumption. And, we shouldn’t treat it as a panacea for waste issues.
A concept that doesn’t work in actuality
It has happened to us all before: something that sounds good in theory doesn’t always translate well in real life. Well, according to experts, recycling is a failed concept due to its failure to be practical in reality.
In 2022, Greenpeace USA issued a report titled “Circular Claims Fall Flat Again,” which examined the issue of plastic waste management in the US. The report revealed that out of the 51 million tons of plastic waste generated by U.S. households in 2021, only approximately 2.4 million tons, equivalent to around 5%, were successfully recycled.
The organization’s survey found that the recycling facilities in the country mostly accept only two types of plastic: polyethylene terephthalate (PET) which we find in the form of water and soda bottles and high-density polyethylene (HDPE)—used for items such as milk jugs and cleaning product.
Plastic types labeled as “3” through “7,” including children’s toys, plastic bags, produce wrappings, yogurt and margarine tubs, coffee cups, and takeout food containers, saw recycling rates of less than 5%.
Despite carrying recycling symbols on their labels, products using plastic types “3” through “7” don’t meet the Federal Trade Commission’s criteria for recyclability. This is because recycling facilities for these plastic types are not widely accessible to a “substantial majority” of the population (60%) and the collected products are not being effectively repurposed in the production of new items.
The report also highlighted five main reasons for the failure of plastic recycling:
- The vast quantities of plastic waste generation, making collection challenging.
- Mixed plastic waste that can’t be efficiently recycled together due to sorting complexities.
- The recycling process itself has environmental risks, including exposure to toxic chemicals and microplastic generation.
- Recycled plastic carries contamination risks from other plastic types in collection bins, limiting its suitability for food-grade applications.
- Recycling is expensive as a process.
Now, some policymakers have taken proactive measures to address plastic waste issue—like India’s ban on 19 single-use items made from plastic, as well as Austria’s initiative to reuse more for beverage packaging. We also should mention Chile which has implemented measures to reduce single-use cutlery and increase more refillable bottles.
There is a growing global awareness of the need to change in order to manage plastic waste problems, which is a good thing—the thought counts. However, some regulations might not work that well. Like California’s plastic ban.
The banning of plastic in California
California led the way as the first state to start a ban on single-use plastic bags in 2014. It sounded good, but this regulation faced significant opposition, including a substantial lobbying effort by plastic bag manufacturers.
These lobbying efforts then led to a two-year setback as policymakers forced a referendum, but in November 2016, voters reaffirmed the ban, allowing it to take effect immediately. The ban primarily targeted LDPE bags—but at the same time, it also promoted the sale of HDPE bags.
According to Mark Murray, the executive director of environmental group Californians Against Waste, plastic bags became a focal point for legislation because they symbolized the problems associated with the excessive use of unnecessary plastic.
However, in 2020 as we all know, the plastic industry thrived due to the pandemic. The industry argued that reusable bags brought from home were potentially contaminated and posed health risks to consumers and workers. This, of course, caused another major setback to the plastic bag ban.
According to a recent study in 2021, Californians disposed of 231,072 tons of plastic bags, equivalent to approximately 11 pounds of bags per person in a population of around 39 million. Looking at these numbers, Murray stated that the statistics are discouraging. And in summary, data suggests that plastic bag bans have had limited additional impact, and that these bags still continue to end up in landfills.