Young Americans may not be as committed to recycling

According to Harris Poll, young people are less likely to recycle than older generations.

November 17, 2014

According to conventional wisdom, millennials are more environmentally conscious than older generations. However, their attitude toward recycling suggest they may not be as “green” as we thought, according to the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries (ISRI), Washington.

A November online survey of more than 2,000 U.S. adults by Harris Poll on behalf of ISRI found that younger American adults ages 18-34 are significantly less likely to say they always recycle than older generations (33 percent versus 48 percent of those aged 35 or older). In addition, younger Americans ages 18-34 are less likely to say that recycling is critical to reducing energy consumption (36 percent versus 46 percent of those aged 55-64) and will help reduce landfill space (45 percent versus 60 percent of those aged 45 and older). Younger adults ages 18-34 also are more likely to say they wish they recycled more than any other age group (37 percent versus 22 percent of those aged 35 or older).

Robin Wiener, president of ISRI, says, “Over the last several decades, communities have strived to make recycling easier through curbside pickup, drop-off locations, convenient public cans located near trash cans, recycling drives and more. There are corporate buy-back programs and in-store drop-offs for recyclables as well. That is why it is so disappointing and shocking to see young people not fully understanding the value of recycling.” She adds, “Clearly, more needs to be done both to encourage recycling and better comprehend why younger generations aren’t seeing the energy, environmental, and economic benefits that recycling provides.”

According to the poll, Americans would like to see more readily available recycling options. The vast majority (90 percent) of Americans think that recycling collection sites need to be more readily accessible to consumers. Furthermore, 68 percent say they believe that manufacturers and/or retailers should pay for recycling programs when they are not already available to consumers, while 62 percent think the government should pay for these recycling programs, according to the survey results.

Other key findings include:
  • A majority of Americans (94 percent) say they recycle, but those ages 35 and older (48 percent) are significantly more likely than those ages 18-34 (33 percent) to say they always recycle. Those ages 65 and older (54 percent) also are more likely to say this than those ages 35-44 (43 percent).
  • A majority (68 percent) of Americans say they believe recycling is the right thing to do, but the percentage decreases with age, with only 62 percent of adults ages 18-34 holding the belief compared with 78 percent of adults ages 65 or older.
  • More than half of Americans say recycling is the socially responsible thing to do (55 percent), but older adults ages 65 or older are more likely than those ages 18-34 to believe this (61 percent versus 53 percent, respectively).
  • Forty percent of Americans say they believe recycling is critical to reduce energy consumption, but older adults ages 65 or older are more likely than those aged 18-34 to say this (46 percent versus 36 percent, respectively).
  • Some Americans have doubts about recycling, as 26 percent say they are not always certain if an item is recyclable, and 6 percent say they don’t believe the items they set aside for recycling are actually recycled. Younger Americans ages 18-34 (33 percent) are more likely than those ages 35-64 (22 percent) to say they are not always certain if an item is recyclable.
  • More than 3 in 5 (62 percent) Americans agree that if a product is not easy/convenient to recycle, they probably would not recycle it.

This survey was conducted online within the United States by Harris Poll on behalf of ISRI from Nov. 3-5, 2014 among 2,013 adults ages 18 and older. This online survey is not based on a probability sample and therefore no estimate of theoretical sampling error can be calculated.