Americans have no idea what the numbers on a plastic recycling logo mean, according to new polling by the Campaign for Recycling Awareness.
The data, collected through a poll of 1,000 Americans by Caravan Surveys, revealed that 49 percent of consumers are unsure what the numbers on recycling logos mean, and an additional 29 percent think they mean something incorrect. This is likely a contributing factor to the recycling rate in the United States being a dismal 32 percent, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.
The numbers inside recycling logos (if they are included) identify which plastic resin was used and how recyclable the product is. For example, PET and HDPE, the plastics identified as #1 and #2, are completely recyclable and accepted in most curbside programs. Polystyrene, which is #6, is not recyclable in curbside programs. Individuals who do not understand this system may try to recycle items that cannot be recycled and vice versa.
Another contributing factor is a lack of access to recycling. The poll revealed that 43 percent of respondents, a plurality, listed a lack of access to recycling as the main reason they do not properly dispose of recyclable products. Currently, 87 percent of Americans have access to curbside recycling according to data from Greenpeace. That does not mean, however, that every building or apartment complex offers a recycling option. Half of the respondents said increasing the number of convenient recycling bins in public places could increase their motivation to recycle.
As a whole, Americans want to be able to recycle products when they no longer need them. A majority of respondents, 54 percent, said they already always recycle while 30 percent of respondents said they sometimes recycle.
Both political parties had similar recycling rates with 82 percent of Republicans and 86 percent of Democrats reporting that they always or sometimes recycle. People ages 35 to 45 had the lowest recycling rate with 43% saying they always recycle. Sixty percent of respondents over the age of 55 always recycle, giving older Americans the highest recycling rate.
Geographically, respondents in the West and Northeast reported having the best recycling habits. At least 90 percent of each region said they always or sometimes recycle. The South and Midwest lagged with rates of 76 percent and 81 percent, respectively. It is not clear why that geographic disparity exists, but lack of access to recycling in rural areas could be to blame. More than 34 million single-family homes in rural communities do not have access to recycling, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.
Low recycling rates have been touted by activists who seek to ban plastic items, but our polling data revealed that Americans are not supportive of drastic measures. Sixty-two percent of respondents reported that they want local governments to focus on increasing recycling rates rather than banning everyday items.
The polling also exposed some of the misconceptions Americans have about recycling. Only 66 percent of respondents knew plastic bottles could be recycled. PET and HDPE plastics (which are identified by the numbers one or two in the recycling triangle) are fully recyclable. On the other side of the coin, 31 percent of respondents thought juice boxes could be recycled. In reality, cartons are not accepted in many curbside programs because the plastic-lined paper, which also includes elements of aluminum, is difficult to recycle.
Many Americans also reported incorrect notions about plastic in the ocean. When asked about the plastic floating in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, just five percent of respondents knew abandoned fishing gear made up the bulk of the mismanaged waste, not soda bottles or straws.
Most Americans were aware that recycled plastic could be turned into new water bottles or playground equipment, but fewer than half of the respondents knew that recycled plastic can be used to create shoes or clothing.
Americans were also uncertain about the differences in various packaging materials. Seventy percent of respondents wrongly believe that plastic produces the most greenhouse gas emissions during production when compared to aluminum or glass. Plastic actually produces the least greenhouse emissions in production when compared to aluminum and glass.
These data points highlight the need for a more robust recycling awareness effort in the United States. As the respondents requested, local governments should spend more time educating the public about recycling and less time pursuing bans on recyclable products.