It’s no secret that some people don’t recycle. In fact, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, the recycling rate in the U.S. is 32%1. Globally, we only recycle 9% of our plastic waste2. There are various reasons why people don’t recycle. But whatever the reason may be, it’s important to remember that recycling is one of the most effective ways we can reduce our impact on the planet.
So let’s examine why people do not recycle and how we can build zero-waste, high-recycling communities.
Sometimes, people don't recycle because of a lack of knowledge or understanding about what can and cannot be recycled.
Many items that can be recycled, such as plastic containers and paper products, are only sometimes labeled correctly. This means that a person may think they are throwing away an unusable item when they could recycle it. It is important to learn what items can be recycled and for manufacturers to properly label the different types of plastic waste and others so that we can separate recyclables from trash.
Some people may need to be aware of the numerous benefits of recycling. For example, recycling can help reduce the waste stream, conserve natural resources, and create new products and jobs. Educating people about the recycling facts, these benefits, and why recycling is important can encourage people to start.
In some places, it is hard to access a bin or find a location to drop off recyclables. This can lead people to simply opt out of the process altogether. To make sure everyone has the opportunity to recycle, municipalities and businesses need to provide convenient access to locations where people can responsibly dispose of materials.
In some cases, there are costs associated with recycling efforts that may make it prohibitive for individuals or businesses to engage in. For example, many cities have transportation and processing fees associated with collecting and sorting recyclables. This is further exacerbated by the fact that some countries buy waste from others, adding to the environmental and human costs associated with shipping and processing to the recycling process.
To encourage people to recycle these costs need to be kept low or eliminated to encourage people to recycle.
For some people, recycling may not be a priority due to their lack of concern about the environment or their lack of understanding of how important it is to reduce waste and conserve natural resources. Education is key here - the more we inform people about the importance of recycling and its positive impacts on our planet, the more likely it will be for them to become more conscious about their consumption habits.
Related: How does recycling help climate change?
On the other hand, some people don't recycle because they are concerned about the environment. Some people may be concerned about the environmental impacts of recycling, such as the energy and resources used in the process.
While it is true that recycling does use resources, it is still considered to be more sustainable than making new products from raw materials. In addition, many modern facilities are designed with sustainability in mind and use renewable energy sources for power.
Some consider the effort required to sort and separate recyclables as too much of a hassle. This can lead to apathy or even laziness when it comes to recycling. Sometimes it is easier when out and about to drop empty plastic bottles in the nearest bin rather than seek out a recycling one. To combat this, we need to ensure that everyone has easy access to recycling bins and that the process is as quick and straightforward as possible.
Governments have the most responsibility to encourage their citizens to recycle. By creating access, incentives, and laws and regulations that make it easier for people to recycle, governments can help reduce waste in landfills. And also support people trying to build a zero-waste lifestyle.
One of the most effective ways for governments to see increased recycling is to provide citizens with access to convenient, centralized collection points. The government should subsidize the installation and operation of these centers to make them more accessible.
Incentives such as tax credits or rebates can encourage individuals, businesses, and organizations to recycle. These incentives can range from monetary payments for each item recycled to discounts on utility bills or other services.
Each government should also have a federal recycling program and consider enacting laws and regulations that promote recycling in their countries. This could include mandatory recycling programs and restrictions on certain materials that cannot be disposed of in landfills.
The potential for policy to positively impact recycling rates is proven in some of the countries with the best recycling rates and those taking zero-waste approaches to resource management.
In Australia, for example, the government takes a comprehensive approach to encouraging recycling and reducing waste. The country has implemented legislation such as the Waste Management and Resources Recovery Act and the National Waste Policy, which set a framework for governments and organizations to reduce waste output. This includes setting targets for waste reduction and promoting resource recovery initiatives through incentives.
We can also make smaller efforts on the individual and group level to encourage people to recycle correctly. Both in our homes and in our communities.
The more informed each person is, the easier for them to build an eco-friendly lifestyle and progress to sustainable living. Start by identifying the recyclable items in your home and create designated bins for each type of waste. Ensure everyone has access to these containers and knows how to use them properly. This will help maintain an organized system and reduce the contamination of recyclable materials.
To get started, read up on our 20 recycling tips for effective recycling at home.
Whereas recycling is typically better than requiring new virgin materials, the principles of the 4RS - Refuse, Reduce, Reuse, Recycle point to a holistic approach of ensuring we use less to start with.
Disposable items, such as plastic bags, utensils, and straws, are used only once before being disposed of. While recycling is an integral part of reducing waste, it is not a solution to the problem of single-use plastics.
Plastics are one of the most common types of waste and some of the most difficult to recycle. To be recycled, plastics must be clean and free of contaminants. This often requires special processing facilities that are only available in some areas.
In addition, plastic recycling is only sometimes economically feasible. The cost of sorting and cleaning recyclable plastic can be high, and the market for recycled plastic is often uncertain. As a result, many recyclers will only accept plastic if it is free from contaminants.
Therefore, the better approach is to adopt a zero-waste culture, seek out zero-waste products, and avoid disposable items as much as possible, so you don't have to worry about them being recycle-worthy.
Not all materials can be recycled, and different recycling programs may have different rules about what is acceptable. Check with your local waste management authority to find out what materials are accepted in the area.
Additionally, you should always ensure that any materials you recycle are clean and free from contaminants. Contaminated materials can affect an entire batch of recyclables and make them unusable.
Some of our more popular recycling guides for items you may not be sure about include:
This will help avoid confusion and make it easier for everyone to know what can and cannot be recycled. Label each bin with the materials that are accepted in that particular container.
You should also place your recycling bins near other waste containers, such as garbage cans and organic waste compost bins, so they are easy to find and use. Finally, ensure that each bin is large enough to hold the number of recyclables you generate.
Lead by example and ensure that you follow the same recycling rules you expect your family to follow. This will help ensure that everyone is doing their part in creating less waste.
Finally, don't forget to thank those who recycle responsibly! Celebrate progress and stay positive! Encouragement and positive reinforcement can go a long way in helping to create lasting patterns of responsible waste management.
Games and prizes might be a great approach if you have small children. Create a game of recycling or start a competition between household members to see who can recycle the most. Give out prizes for those who participate, make it an enjoyable experience, and make visible progress in building a more eco-friendly life.
By choosing recycled material when shopping, you are helping close the recycling loop and ensuring that resources are used sustainably. You should aim to shop zero-waste; don’t buy plastic water bottles or plastic straws because you plan to offset it by recycling.
If you want to see recycling in your community, you must become part of the work that gets the community there. Here are some ways you can contribute:
Many communities have recycling programs in place, but most can do more to increase the number of recyclable materials collected.
One way to improve recycling rates is to support local initiatives with a very active grassroots network. These initiatives can include public education campaigns, special events, and even financial incentives for residents who recycle.
By supporting these initiatives, you can raise awareness about the benefits of recycling and encourage more people to participate. In addition, you can help get new or improved recycling facilities installed in your area.
You don't have to wait for your community or country-wide recycling program to be perfect before taking action; start small and think globally while acting locally. Every little bit helps, and every person who takes steps toward reducing waste makes a difference.
Related: Communities going plastic-free
If you notice a lot of litter in your community that is recycling items, you can start by organizing clean-up days in your community. This involves gathering a group of people to pick up litter from a designated area. Not only will this help prevent environmental decline, but it will also help recycle some of the litter accumulating.
If you're interested in organizing a clean-up day in your community, here are some tips to get communal effort:
Even if you don’t have a lot of time, there are many ways that you can educate others on the importance of recycling, adopting a zero-waste mindset, and creating less waste. You can talk to people one-on-one, write articles or blog posts about it, or create social media posts highlighting the benefits of recycling. You could even organize a presentation or workshop on recycling for your local community group or school. To help people understand its importance, you might find our article on what would happen if people stopped recycling useful.
No matter what approach you take, educating others on recycling is a great way to make a difference in your community and help protect our environment.
To reduce the amount of plastic waste that is produced each year, businesses and restaurants need to reduce their use of single-use plastics. This includes takeout containers, plastic bags, plastic straws, and other plastics. Cooperation from such organizations is pivotal to getting low-recycling communities to become more environmentally responsible.
Here are some ways that local businesses and restaurants can do this:
If you're interested in volunteering at local recycling centers or recycling facilities, here are some things to keep in mind:
If we want to make a difference and save our planet, recycling is something that everyone should be doing. It's important to understand why people don't recycle so we can work on overcoming those barriers. Once we start recycling ourselves and build a more eco-friendly life, we can encourage others to do the same. Let's all work together to make our world a better place!
EPA. National overview: Facts and figures on materials, wastes and recycling
|2||Production, use, and fate of all plastics ever made. Roland Geyer, Jenna R. Jambeck and Kara Lavender Law, Science Advances 19 Jul 2017: Vol. 3, no. 7, e1700782, DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.1700782|
Jen’s a passionate environmentalist and sustainability expert. With a science degree from Babcock University Jen loves applying her research skills to craft editorial that connects with our global changemaker and readership audiences centered around topics including zero waste, sustainability, climate change, and biodiversity.
Elsewhere Jen’s interests include the role that future technology and data have in helping us solve some of the planet’s biggest challenges.