“Reduce, Reuse, Recycle,” goes the familiar sustainability slogan. But a new study suggests that people don’t really know what the slogan means or why it goes that way. In an online survey, nearly half of 473 participants were unable to put the 3Rs in the correct order from the most to least sustainable action.
Members of the public tend to prioritize recycling, the study reveals, to the detriment of reducing and reusing.
Recycling has “been over-emphasized, over-utilized, and has caused us to overlook more sustainable strategies—namely producing less waste in the first place!” says study team member Michaela Barnett, owner of KnoxFill, a zero-waste store in Knoxville, Tennessee, who conducted the research as a graduate student at the University of Virginia.
Barnett and her collaborators designed two online surveys to investigate what people living in the United States think about different waste management strategies, how much they know about recycling, and how effective they perceive recycling to be.
In both studies, involving a total of 1,321 participants, most said that recycling is the most sustainable waste management option, the researchers report in the journal Nature Sustainability.
But, Barnett adds, “There is a lot of nuance in our results.” In the second survey reported in the paper, people mentioned recycling more often than any other option when asked what they thought was the most effective thing they or other Americans could do to reduce landfill waste. But when asked about the most effective ways to reduce plastic pollution in the ocean, 40% of the 848 participants suggested using fewer plastic products compared to 22.2% who answered recycling.
“I was surprised that despite exhibiting a recycling bias, people were aware of issues with recycling and lacked confidence in it,” Barnett says. In one survey, participants were aware that the majority of plastics ever produced have ended up in landfills or the natural environment (though they did overestimate the percentage of plastics that have been recycled at 25%, compared to expert estimates of about 9%).
And in the other survey, participants said on average that they were only about 50% certain that items they put in recycling bins actually get recycled.
“People may be aware of issues with recycling—but they still default to it,” says Barnett. “This may be because people are failing to consider source reduction. It also might be because opting out of our wasteful system feels so inaccessible and impossible that people may know that recycling isn’t actually the best option – but they perceive it as their least worst option.”
This desire for a least worst option might have something to do with people’s tendency to engage in “wishcycling.” Asked to sort different types of items into virtual recycling, compost, and garbage bins, more than one-quarter of participants in one of the surveys incorrectly put things like plastic bags, disposable coffee cups, and light bulbs in the recycling bin.
When the researchers asked participants in this survey what phase of a product’s life cycle has the greatest potential to reduce waste, more than half cited the product design phase. But when asked at what phases they felt they as individuals have the most power to reduce waste, the vast majority responded with either the consumption (72.9%) or disposal (23.3%) stages—that is, deciding whether to buy something, what to buy, and whether to recycle.
“In some cases people understand that upstream options are best, but they feel completely disempowered to change the system in any capacity that doesn’t involve consumption behaviors,” says Barnett. “In other words, it seems like people think their only path to be a change agent is as a consumer and a disposer, and not a citizen or advocate.”
This notion of empowerment is intriguing, Barnett thinks. “Why do we think our most effective course of action is as consumers and not as citizens? How can we empower people to be change agents and act in a capacity that alters systems, not just their own, individual, end-user behaviors?” she says. “I’m thinking through these questions and have some future projects in mind.”
Source: Barnett M.J. et al. “Recycling bias and reduction neglect.” Nature Sustainability 2023.