As stakeholders in its success, all of us in the recycling industry need to step outside our silos and work together to create a more cohesive user experience that will ultimately serve all of our interests.
By Alec Cooley

The recycling industry has experienced its share of challenges in recent years. Contamination has contributed to a cascading set of problems—from China’s National Sword policy to the resulting crash in commodity prices and cutbacks to many community-level collection programs. These events were accompanied by a steady drum beat of national and local media stories reinforcing a narrative that recycling was “broken”, if not an outright fraud.

Our industry is, of course, a resilient one. Despite fluctuations in the past year, recycling markets have fundamentally rebounded from the crash of 2019. The private sector continues to invest in collection and processing infrastructure. Community recycling programs have largely returned. Contamination and other challenges remain, but recycling has again demonstrated it is here to stay.

The problem is that no one has bothered to tell this to the public. Even as industry professionals move on from the turmoil of the last five years, there is growing evidence that people remain confused and, in many cases, disillusioned with recycling. If there is a common denominator that binds all recycling stakeholders together—from sustainability managers to haulers to MRF operators and processors—it is that we are all dependent on a system that begins with the mundane, everyday decision that people make to put recyclable items into the correct bin. However, recent surveys suggest the public is increasingly experiencing what we might term a “crisis of faith” in recycling. While it has not generated the same level of attention as National Sword, a growing skepticism about recycling presents an arguably greater, long-term risk to the flow of scrap material that feeds this recycling system. To maintain and increase this feedstock, we need to recognize individual recycling behavior for what it is: a critical step in the recovery and remanufacturing process that can and needs to be
optimized. Increasing the supply of clean material requires investing not just in processing equipment and collection infrastructure, but also in public communication. Above all, it requires greater effort between all stakeholders to address the inconsistent, seemingly-arbitrary aspects of the recycling experience that undermine public confidence.

Busch Systems’ Senior Advisor, Alec Cooley, discussing best practices.
Images courtesy of Busch Systems


A “Crisis of Faith” Poses a Risk to All Recycling Stakeholders
The need to engage everyday people about recycling has, of course, always existed. Community-level outreach and broader campaigns like America Recycles Day have sought to educate and motivate greater participation for decades. These efforts make a difference, but are chronically underfunded. Survey results published last summer as part of The Recycling Partnership’s newly launched Recycling Confidence Index found that only 1 in 4 people could recall receiving communication from their local recycling program in the past year. Against that vacuum of positive information, the last few years have exposed people to repeated stories, suggesting recycling is a drain on government budgets, that contamination forces much of it to the landfill or that recycling does not really help the environment to begin with.
The impact of this narrative can be found in separate survey results published by the Shelton Group and The Recycling Partnership last summer. In the first instance, when respondents were asked in 2019 how confident they were that the items they tossed in recycling bins actually get recycled into new items, 14 percent said “not very” or “not at all”. Asked again in 2020, that number increased to 23 percent. In 2022 it was 30 percent. The Recycling Partnership found similar perceptions with their Confidence Index research. While 8 in 10 survey respondents expressed a belief in recycling’s positive impact, only 52 percent had faith that “items I recycle are [usually or always] made into new things”.

To understand the threat this skepticism poses to recycling stakeholders, let’s start by acknowledging a basic truth: people are complicated. Recycling behavior is influenced by a range of factors, including, among others, attitudes, habit, and even perceptions of whether our peers do it. People do not need to be passionate environmentalists to recycle, but we all share a basic need for validation. The effort we are asked to make has to be reasonable. And above all, it has to have a purpose. No one wants to feel they are wasting their time, but that is the impression many have been left with. When you ask sustainability coordinators directly interacting with the public, what many are hearing is a sense of frustration. The complexity and ever-shifting rules around recyclability are more than the average person can or wants to keep up with. Add on the perception, accurate or not, that items they have diligently placed in their blue cart end up in the landfill, and it is hard not to sympathize when they react by asking “Why bother?”

The risk is not that the American public will quit recycling tomorrow. The more likely response is a general erosion in the level of effort people invest. They may continue recycling, but give up trying to understand the nuances of recyclability. They might use the recycling bin in front of them, but hesitate to walk an extra 5 feet to reach one. People have limited attention but long memories when it comes to recycling. Without steps to counter these negative perceptions, the greatest threat is that they harden into long term beliefs and cause recycling to slip from the daily routine that drives most sorting actions. The good news is that we have the ability and knowledge of how to rebuild confidence in the recycling system.


Busch Systems Spectrum® Series Containers.

Communication is Key to Rebuilding Support for Recycling
The first step is to simply increase existing local outreach efforts to ensure people are informed about their community program. The Recycling Partnership’s Confidence research found that respondents who could recall receiving recent program information were nearly twice as likely to report above average knowledge of recycling as those who had not received outreach materials. Investing more resources into education and outreach will pay dividends to local waste authorities in the form of lower contamination and greater participation.
Local municipalities and waste districts are best positioned to educate residents, but they should not be left to carry the entire burden for an investment that benefits all industry stakeholders. Through EPR frameworks and other means, product manufacturers as well as state governments and other industry stakeholders need to share the cost and insulate basic education from the pressures of competing local budget priorities.

While traditional “how” and “what” recyclability details will always be critical to communicate, our public messaging needs to go further to connect people with the recycling process itself. For the average person, a bottle or old box tossed into the recycling bin disappears into a mysterious process that somehow makes new things and helps the environment. It is difficult to grasp the logic of why some things are or are not recyclable without knowledge of the system. That lack of understanding also makes it easy to fall prey to misinformation about recyclables going to the landfill. The way to counter this is to show evidence of how it does, in fact, work and what it results in. People are curious to hear the “story of recycling”. Learning about the steps involved from MRF to remanufacturing, the jobs and economic activity generated, what scrap items get turned into—all this information connects their personal effort to a tangible result and allows them to feel a part of something larger.

Incorporating this information with Recycle Right messaging also puts them on the hook. Being part of that team effort that makes jobs and new items possible takes more than simply tossing items into a cart, it requires the effort to ensure only the correct items go in. They do not need to hear the granular details, but a high-level understanding of the process allows them to safely put recycling back into the “worth doing” corner of their mind.


Greater investment in public outreach is critical to building confidence in recycling and
improving material recovery.

Removing the Barriers That Cause Confusion and Frustration
Effective communication is important to addressing confusion, but it is an inherently uphill climb to explain something as disjointed and confusing as our current recycling system. To put this in context, consider the success of Apple Inc. over the past 25 years. Yes, they have sold products that people want, but close observers understand a significant part of that success was their co-founder, Steve Jobs’ hyper-focus on the user experience. This design approach influences how people swipe screens, use apps to connect to their interests and even how they cradle devices in their hands. It ensures a smart, elegant experience that has proven hugely attractive to hundreds of millions of customers. Jobs created a business model around highly complex products that, nonetheless, require virtually no written instructions because of their ability to intuitively guide the use of the average person.

The process to recycle is much different to the process of using a iPhone, but the same principles of intuitive design apply. Unfortunately, recycling used items provides a sharp contrast. It is not just that seemingly identical materials like plastic packaging have different standards of recyclability, it is that it changes by location and over time. Items that are not recyclable may nonetheless have the familiar recycling triangle around the resin code, and in some cases a message on the label misinforming consumers that they are in fact recyclable. The rules governing recyclability are convoluted to the point that program managers have no choice but to implicitly accept certain non-recyclable items simply to keep sorting instructions manageable.

And then there is the challenge of placing items in the correct bin. Even if items are recyclable in multiple locations, identical looking recycling and trash bins may obscure whether there is a choice. A recycling bin may be blue in one location, but green or yellow in another. The terminology used in one location is different in another. Recycling might be an option in someone’s office, but it requires them getting up and walking down a hallway to find the correct bin even as custodians conveniently empty the trash waste basket at their desk. And of course, all of this assumes recycling is even available as an option in a given location.

Rather than intuitively guide users, our system places micro-barriers to recycling at every step. The collective user experience is one of confusion and frustration, creating a situation that tries the patience of even the most die-hard recycler. There is no one explanation for why recovery rates have remained dismally low for decades, but there is also no question the ad hoc, patch quilt system plays a significant role.

Fixing the quirks and inconsistencies of the recycling experience is no simple task, but we can and must address these issues if we want the public to keep faith in the system. Packaging and brand companies need to redouble efforts to increase and streamline recyclability in product design. MRFs, haulers, and local governments need to work across jurisdictions to harmonize MRF-shed-wide recyclability guidelines, terminology, and branding. More resources need to be put toward documenting and implementing behavior-related best practices at the community level. Policy makers need to implement truth-in-recycling-labeling requirements and other steps to prevent parochial interests from compromising the overall system.

Recycling Stakeholders Need to Work Together
In recent years, local governments and the private sector have invested heavily in collection, processing, and remanufacturing equipment to ensure quality and capacity in the material recovery system. As necessary as this investment is, it cannot by itself deliver recycling’s success. We cannot think of this as a “Field of Dreams” situation where building infrastructure guarantees people will use it. We need to make an equal investment in a communication infrastructure. And as stakeholders in its success, all of us in the recycling industry need to step outside our silos and work together to create a more cohesive user experience that will ultimately serve all our interests. | WA

Alec Cooley is Senior Advisor for Busch Systems. He is a former Director of Recycling Programs with Keep America Beautiful, and a current board member of the National Recycling Coalition. Alec can be reached at (800) 565-9931 or e-mail [email protected].