A look at packaging recycling rates can be a bit disappointing. Rates have stayed flat for the past few years, and many types of packaging we think of as “100% recyclable” have recycling rates that are a far cry from 100%.
Meanwhile, we are coming to rely more and more on a new metric for recyclability: the access-to-recycling rate, or “reach” rate, which tells us the percentage of consumers whose recycling program accepts a given type of packaging. A number of studies on reach rates have been conducted and made publicly for nearly every major type of packaging, and one conclusion always jumps off the page: reach rates tend to be high while recycling rates tend to be significantly lower. Why the disconnect? If the vast majority of consumers have access to recycling, are they simply not using it?
Take PET bottles, for example. A 2012 study commissioned by the American Chemistry Council showed that 94% of U.S. consumers have access to a recycling program that accepts PET bottles—pretty astronomical. Compare that with the EPA’s estimate that 31% of PET bottles were recycled in 2012, and it’s easy to conclude that Americans could recycle PET bottles, but they choose not to. This conclusion leads us to design programs to encourage consumer participation in recycling, undergo efforts to make recycling cool and create on-package messaging imploring consumers to choose recycling. After all, consumers have access to a recycling program, right? They just need to be convinced to use it?
There are likely plenty of instances where consumers are ambivalent and won’t take the seemingly miniscule amount of time and effort to discard their waste in a recycling bin instead of a trash can, but it’s more likely that a larger portion of the blame actually lies with the access to recycling. Put simply, not all access to recycling is created equal. Convenience matters, and if we think it’s a seemingly miniscule amount of time necessary for a consumer to make the responsible choice, then we must believe that their recycling really is readily accessible. Unfortunately, many consumers with access to recycling lack convenient access to recycling.
The most simplistic measure of quality access to recycling is its comparative convenience to garbage. If we want people with curbside garbage collection to recycle, then they need curbside recycling collection too. Furthermore, their recycling receptacle needs to be similar to their garbage can. Have you ever strolled your wheeled garbage can out to the curb and then lifted and hauled a bin full of glass containers out next to it? The amount of effort exerted is hardly an incentive to use that access to recycling. If the rolling cart for recycling is identical to the rolling cart for garbage, it’s easy to imagine a greater willingness to use it.
Cost matters too. If consumers with curbside garbage collection are asked to pay more for recycling pick-up, they can’t be expected to jump at the opportunity. Many will, but a large number won’t. It’s not that those people are apathetic and choose not to use their access to recycling, it’s that they are unwilling to pony up the extra monthly fee. This is not a seemingly miniscule amount of time and effort to recycle, but rather an appreciable amount of money needed to receive that access to recycling. Recycling is often treated as a commoditized service, not a right, and participation in a fee-for-service program will be leveraged accordingly.
Finally, it’s important to recognize that our studies on access to recycling focus on households and services provided to homes, yet so much packaging waste is generated away from home. Nobody should accuse consumers of ambivalence just because they are unwilling to stockpile their PET bottles and bring them home for recycling. Single-serve beverages are overwhelmingly consumed on the go, but there is a lack of studies on the prevalence of recycling collection away from home. Does your workplace offer access to recycling that is equally convenient to garbage? Your gas station? These might be better measures of the likelihood that a PET bottle will be recycled.
At the end of the day, it’s true that most consumers have access to recycling programs that accept most major types of packaging. This is a good thing. But before we scratch our heads wondering why consumers aren’t recycling more, let’s question the type of access to recycling and the quality of that access to recycling. It could be that recycling rates closely match the percentage of consumers with convenient access to recycling, and though an unwillingness to recycle still exists, that apathy exists only when the garbage can is simply more accessible.
Author Adam Gendell is a project manager with the Sustainable Packaging Coalition and is currently organizing a large multi-stakeholder study on access-to-recycling that will include data on the convenience of provided access. For more information about the Sustainable Packaging Coalition, visit www.sustainablepackaging.org.