Don’t Consume Less, Just Recycle More: Public Perceptions About Waste Generation and the Recycling System

Abstract

As waste generation and its environmental costs increase globally, do Americans have any idea how much waste they generate? What do people think are effective personal actions they can take to reduce waste? In a national online survey, 932 participants reported their perceptions about waste behaviors and the recycling system. When asked about what they and other Americans could do to reduce landfill waste and, in a second question, reduce plastic pollution in the ocean, most participants cited disposal behaviors (e.g., recycle more, donate clothes, or compost) rather than source reduction behaviors (e.g., purchasing products with less packaging, not buying unnecessary items). Similarly, when thinking about how they would change their behaviors if recycling were no longer available, most participants reported that they would either drive farther to recycle or throw away recyclable goods rather than reducing purchase of single-use items that require disposal. This contrasts with EPA and UN waste management recommendations to minimize waste production by focusing on source reduction and reuse. Although recycling will be an important part of a sustainable circular economy model, recycling alone and as currently practiced is not an effective waste management strategy. The misperceptions revealed in this research indicate the need for better public understanding about what happens to waste after it is thrown “away” and increased emphasis on waste reduction strategies.



Author Information
Michaela Barnett, University of Virginia, United States
Patrick Hancock, University of Virginia, United States
Shahzeen Attari, Indiana University, United States
Leidy Klotz, University of Virginia, United States

Paper Information
Conference: IICSEEHawaii2020
Stream: Consumption, Production & Waste

This paper is part of the IICSEEHawaii2020 Conference Proceedings (View)
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