Photo: Dave Goodman
A lot of people just don't recycle. While there may be a temptation to imagine them as conspiring Earth Haters who take orders directly from Skeletor, they are usually normal people who try to contribute positively to society in other ways.
They are members of our family, our neighbors and our friends. So what makes them choose to bypass the blue bin?
We investigated five individuals who do not regularly recycle. A better understanding of their "why" can help proponents of recycling better understand the "how" of what can be done to increase participation.
Editor's note: Names have been changed to encourage participants to be candid.
The twenty-something bachelor
Meet Matt, a recent business college graduate living in Utah. While adapting to his new job, Matt is also preparing to invest in his first home, not to mention finding a nice young lady with whom he can settle down. He gives five reasons for not recycling.
"My No. 1 reason is convenience - or should I say, inconvenience," he says. "We don't have a [curbside] recycling program where I live. You have to collect all of your items and then drive them to the middle of nowhere to drop them off. It takes too much extra effort."
Storage is another barrier, especially for those living in multi-family housing, according to Matt. "Where am I going to put all of that stuff? I don’t have a lot of extra space, and I don't really want my garbage lying around my house while it builds up.”
Although convenience and storage are the main reasons Matt does not recycle, there are other factors, including confusing programs. During college, Matt lived in an apartment complex with a dumpster for recycables in the parking lot. Even though it made recycling more convenient, he didn't use it because he didn't know the "rules."
"You can't mix this plastic with that one. Cardboard is OK, but not that pizza box, even though it's cardboard. Recyclers have their own language. It’s like a foreign country, and I don’t want to be a tourist there,” he says.
Matt also doesn't like the philosophy of city-funded programs. "I'm sure that they pay for themselves to some degree, but I am annoyed that my tax dollars go to recycling programs," he says. "If people are into recycling, they should do it on their own. It's not government's place to decide which causes I support."
Matt's final reason is an interesting insight for those trying to motivate their friends to get involved. The superior attitude of many pro-recyclers is an enormous turnoff.
"I wish they would just get off their high green horses," he says. "Stop being snotty about it. Get your nose out of the air. Stop acting like you're better than me because you recycle. It makes me want to throw something in the trash just to spite you."
The thirty-something family guy
Darren is a family guy working for a nonprofit organization in Washington, DC. While his wife is more apt to recycle, Darren has a hard time making economic sense of it.
"I'm very skeptical of environmental claims because they are rarely economic," he says.
Economically speaking, some recycling isn't cost effective, he argues, citing plastic as an example of a controversial material while others are agreed to be cost-effective, such as aluminum cans.
“What I wish everyone would learn in Economics 101 is that there are trade-offs in life. There are both benefits and downsides to recycling," Darren explains. "Individually, time is the most precious resource we use when we recycle. You could have done something else with that time used to recycle, and you can never get back spent time. On the city level, it’s time, effort and money. It is a question of whether recycling is the best use of that money, or if it would be better spent on education or health care. There are always trade-offs.”
But people differ in what they consider to be the best trade-off. "I think a lot of people recycle because it makes them feel good, and that's fine. For me personally, I get no benefit from recycling, so I don’t’ do it," he says.
Darren also says people don't think about what resources will have to be used to recycle their product. He uses the examples of diapers. While many people are critical of plastic diapers, cleaning cloth diapers use water and energy, as well as requiring the use of chemicals that could eventually get back into the water supply.
"These are strong detergents, but you want a very clean diaper on your baby. What is the environmental thing to do?" he asks.
The sweet sixteen-ager
Jenny is an enthusiastic teenager who squeezed in a quick interview between lacrosse games. Her goal is to become a neurosurgeon. Jenny's main reason for not recycling has a familiar ring: lack of convenience.
"I hardly ever recycle. If I actually find a recycling bin I do - it's not like I hate the earth or something," she says. "It would make a big difference if there was a program in my city."
There is also not a strong program in Jenny's school. Some classrooms have small bins for paper, but she says no one enforces actually using them.
Aside from a short lecture at the beginning of the year, there is not much talk about recycling on campus. None of Jenny's friends recycles, either, and peer influence is especially powerful for teens. "It's just not a big deal. No one really thinks about it," she says.
The proud grandparents
With 18 grandchildren and one more on the way, James and Susan keep a full schedule, even though they're partially retired. Before settling down in New Mexico, they lived all over the West. Their involvement in recycling has depended largely on the local programs available where they were living.
"Now I live in a state that doesn’t give you any incentive to recycle, so I don't usually do it," James says.
Many years ago, the couple tried to get their kids excited about recycling. Over the course of about a year, the family worked together to fill a large garbage sack full of crushed cans. The plan was to turn them in and use the money for a fun family activity. But the local company paid out very little for the cans, and the total was only $3.50 - a great disappointment to the kids especially.
"We had saved religiously, but the payout was terrible," James remembers. "That was the last time I ever tried to recycle. It barely paid for my gasoline to get down there."
"Without a good program that pays a nickle or dime per can, your only incentive is your guilty conscience. But not everyone feels guilty about not recycling. Until states get behind it and make it more worthwhile, a lot of people just won’t do it," James says.
Susan agrees. “Even if you’re not an environmentalist, you can be an economist and recycle if there are money incentives,” she says.
Having to store recyclables for a long amount of time if you don’t have a curbside program can also be very dirty, Susan points out. "We had ants and it was all stinky when we tried to save up those cans, even when we tried to wash everything out."
A curbside recycling program would make an enormous difference, James adds.
"The way recycling is set up around here, the burden falls on the recycler, not the company doing the recycling," he says. "I’m not going to take that pop can and drive it around town searching for a recycling bin, but if they pick it up from me without charge, that's a different story."
What we learned
One reoccurring barrier was the lack of convenience for those who do not have a curbside program. In the words of Susan, "I’d certainly separate my trash if I could just roll it out to be picked up every week for free. I think everyone would."
The message is that we still have a long way to go in expanding curbside programs to everyone. Facilitating discussion about local recycling programs will put pressure on cities to offer such programs. Those who live in a city without curbside recycling can be more vocal with local leaders.
More visibility of recycling campaigns (especially online) could increase excitement among teenagers, many of whom, according to Jenny, are simply disconnected from recycling. It is important not to ignore this crowd, as they will be the decision-makers in the future.
A final action an individual can take is to check personal behavior to make sure he or she is contributing to recycling's image in a positive way. Just as Matt pointed out, there is an attitude of superiority that other interviewees mentioned as well. Optimism and a friendly invitation to participate will sell better than guilt or social segregation, and excitement is the best tool for recruitment.