Confused consumers toss out plastic packaging instead of recycling: poll

in Sustainable Packaging on July 31, 2014

When it comes to plastic packaging, the majority of consumers have no idea what to recycle.

In a recent online poll by the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries (ISRI) and Earth911, 65% of respondents say they don’t understand what plastics are acceptable in curbside collection, leading ISRI president Robin Wiener to conclude, “As long as confusion reigns, consumers are apt to throw plastics away that should be recycled. This Earth911/ISRI Opinion Poll demonstrates a strong need for additional education, particularly by municipalities, on what can be recycled and how to do it.”

Conducted from May 19 to July 23, 2014, the poll asked a simple question: “What do you find most confusing about recycling plastic?” A total of 1,177 people answered, with the top reply at 37% being “Knowing how much food contamination is acceptable.” Can you blame them? Who has time to rinse dirty packages, especially if a hot meal is waiting for you on the table?

Next, 28% say “Understanding what types of plastic my municipality accepts in their curbside recycling program.” Clearly, Wiener’s conclusion has merit.

Then 18% of respondents say they are confused about “Finding where I can recycle plastics.” But, let’s face it, few consumers are willing to expend the time, energy or cost to recycle if it means doing more than putting something in their bin for curbside recycling.

Lastly, 17% admit to not being a “numbers” person, choosing the option of “The meaning of the recycling numbers.” The resin identification codes were never meant to be the amateur’s guide to recycling. But, through its membership in global standards organization ASTM, ISRI is partnering with other stakeholders on the issue of redefining the resin identification codes.

In 2011, 280 million tons of plastics were produced globally (total plastics, not just packaging)—or 560 billion pounds. Yet only 4.5 billion pounds of post-consumer plastic—bottles, bags, film and non-rigid plastics—were recycled in the United States in the same year. Even looking at just a sliver of the packaging market—PET, the the most commonly recycled packaging plastic—the potential to improve is vast. About 802 thousand tons of PET plastic bottles were recycled nationwide in 2011, according to the Container Recycling Institute, but more than two times as much PET was wasted: 1.9 million tons.

“With more and more plastic being produced, it is essential that plastic products that have reached end of life enter the recycling stream,” says Wiener.

What can brand owners do to help clear up consumers’ confusion?

“Brand owners should continue to work with recyclers and municipalities to make clearer what is and what is not recyclable within community recycling programs,” says Jonathan Cohen, ISRI Plastics Div. chair and president of Generated Materials Recovery (Phoenix, AZ).

Perhaps the How2Recycle label from the Sustainable Packaging Coalition is an option. It tells people what to do with the product’s packaging when it’s empty and is gaining ground with brand owners and consumers alike.

2 Comments

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It troubles me when walking the western shore of MI that I can pick up 121 pieces of plastic garbage in a 1 mile stretch of beach. Pop bottle tops, plastic ribbon and balloons, broken bits. I noticed there wasn't much paper (except a few fireworks already degrading). My family recycles, going to the trouble of rinsing all our containers and driving them to the Recycling Center. How can we get more people to care?
The problem you are experiencing is not a recycling issue, it's littering. People who litter will only begin to care when they are held accountable for their actions.