Since China banned the import of most recyclable material at the beginning of 2018, curbside recycling programs in the United States have been in the spotlight, and municipalities have sought ways to improve collection and sortation. A new poll of more than 2,000 Americans conducted online by The Harris Poll on behalf of The Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries (ISRI), Washington, reveals how curbside recycling programs in the U.S. are perceived and provides insights on how they can be strengthened to improve the quality and supply of recyclable material.
The survey was conducted Sept. 17-19, 2018, among more than 2,000 U.S. adults at the same time the groups conducted a similar study on the ease of recyclability that was part of the same polling process in September.
According to the study, nearly 8 in 10 Americans have curbside programs where they live (79 percent). Of those with programs, almost 9 in 10 find the recycling services to be valuable (88 percent). It is split nearly in half between those who feel these programs are effective and efficient compared with those who believe they can be improved (43 percent to 45 percent). Only 12 percent believed it is not a valuable service.
“Seeing that 88 percent [of people] find [recycling] to be valuable is key,” says Mark Carpenter, senior director of communications at ISRI. “One of the concerns with all media attention on China and stories about recycling programs being cut back, there’s concern that would this dissuade people from recycling. I think this is positive indicator—people value recycling, and it’s part of their community based on breakdowns in terms of people are looking for more collection, larger bins, recycling is healthy in terms of public attitude and people are looking to recycle.”
“With the actions taken by China prohibiting the importation of recyclable material, there has been a fear that this would negatively impact the public perception of curbside recycling,” says Robin Wiener, president of ISRI. “On the contrary, Americans have a very positive view of recycling programs in their communities. Where they do seek improvements, there is an opportunity to increase recycling rates, increase quality, and create more of a supply of recyclable materials for use in manufacturing products.”
Carpenter says the 88 percent figure is valuable information to the association.
“One of the concerns with all media attention on China and stories about recycling programs being cut back, there’s concern that would this dissuade people from recycling,” he says. “I think this is positive indicator—people value recycling, and it’s part of their community based on breakdowns in terms of people are looking for more collection, larger bins, recycling is healthy in terms of public attitude and people are looking to recycle.”
Those surveyed who believe curbside recycling could be improved or was not valuable were asked ways such programs could be improved in their community. More than half feel more public education would help (54 percent). Outside education, the most popular recommendations focus on the pickup process:
- Have more frequent recycling pickups (36 percent).
- Use separate bins for different recyclable materials (35 percent).
- Provide larger recycling containers to manage volume (35 percent).
There is also an appetite for more public investment in recycling infrastructure to better sort and process materials (28 percent).
Punitive actions designed to encourage households to better recycle are among the least popular options:
- Allow collectors to refuse pickup of nonrecyclable materials and leave them at the curb (18 percent).
- Implement fines for residents who improperly recycle (17 percent).
“The public is very much aligned with the recycling industry’s recommendations when it comes to ways to improve the quality of material coming out of the curbside recycling stream,” Wiener adds. “Better sorting techniques, both at the household level and at material recovery facilities, alone will go a long way in improving the quality and driving demand for these materials. This is an encouraging sign that local governments need to take note of when it comes to investing in recycling infrastructure.”
Carpenter says this poll, along with the recyclability ease poll results released last week, will be useful to present data to stakeholders during America Recycles Day Nov. 15. He says it offers helpful information to back up ISRI’s conversations with lawmakers in general.
“We’ll do a radio tour around that time based on the information to share results of the poll more broadly with the public,” he says. ““Another factor, it’s been over a year now in wake of issues with China, and ISRI has been leading efforts related to addressing key issues related to the supply and demand of recyclable materials. So, having a survey of the public should shed some light on key areas for stakeholders throughout the recycling chain.”
The survey also looked at the roles brands play in encouraging recycling. Detailed results are available online.