Americans don’t know how to recycle – and that lack of knowledge is the biggest barrier to being green, according to new research. A new survey of 2,000 Americans revealed that 62 percent worry that a lack of knowledge is causing them to recycle incorrectly. And results found that fear to be substantiated – a high percentage of respondents struggled when quizzed on whether or not different materials could be recycled.

Over half of respondents (53 percent) erroneously believe greasy pizza boxes can be recycled, while 68 percent incorrectly think the same for used plastic utensils. Commissioned by Covanta and conducted by OnePoll in advance of Earth Day, the survey found that despite good intentions, Americans face a variety of barriers when trying to live environmentally-friendly lives.

Twenty-two percent of respondents report not having enough information regarding recycling and 18 percent admit they don’t understand what can and can’t be recycled. In addition to a lack of knowledge, Americans struggle with the cost to purchase environmentally-friendly products (41 percent) and face a lack of access (38 percent) when trying to be green.

“While done with good intentions, many Americans are practicing aspirational recycling – tossing things into recycling bins that they think should be recycled, rather than what can be recycled,” said Dr. Paul Gilman, chief sustainability officer at Covanta. “This practice has led to the contamination of recyclables and a crisis in the market.”

Only 31 percent say they always recycle a recyclable item, leading the average respondent to throw away five items a week that could have been reused or recycled, even when specialty recycling programs are available for specific items.

For example, 38 percent of those surveyed report throwing used ink cartridges into the trash and 24 percent do the same with plastic bags – instead of using widely-available recycling programs for these items.

Beyond being thwarted in their recycling efforts by a lack of knowledge, other reasons given for not recycling include a lack of convenient access (39 percent), a lack of space for extra bins (35 percent) and a lack of time to separate recyclables (29 percent).

In addition to recycling, there are other ways to live an environmentally-friendly lifestyle, such as reducing consumption of materials that wind up in the waste stream. But when it comes to limiting waste, few respondents report taking steps to do so – just three in 10 avoid using plastic water bottles on a weekly basis, while 29 percent avoid plastic straws.

Though the majority of respondents aren’t eschewing plastic straws and water bottles, they do report caring about the environment – with 61 percent “very concerned” about keeping the oceans clean. And in addition to the 82 percent who want to be more environmentally friendly, 86 percent believe it’s important to take environmentally-friendly actions on a day-to-day basis.

Respondents care so much about the environment that 83 percent would be willing to pay more money every month if it meant they lived a zero-waste and environmentally-friendly lifestyle – with a fifth willing to shell out over $6K per year. “We can all do our part to protect the planet,” continued Dr. Gilman. “It starts with striving for more sustainable waste management in our daily lives, which can be one of the best mechanisms to help combat global climate change and reduce environmental impacts. By taking steps to reduce waste sent to landfills, reuse what we can and recycle the right way, together we can make a big difference.”


  • Cut down on my plastic bag use, stop using plastic straws and recycle more in my home
  • Read more about how to take good care of myself and the environment
  • Attend seminars on recycling, waste, the environment and climate change
  • Making sure recycling is done right, picking up trash from street and conserving water
  • Help pick up trash and show others how to be more environmentally friendly
  • I plan on turning off most of the electronics and having a reading day with my family
  • Organizing a clean-up exercise
  • Use as little water and electricity as possible
  • I will be putting in more time to educate others on the need for us to protect our environment
  • Clean parks that have garbage and litter
  • I am making a commitment to recycle more than I do now
  • Create awareness and possibly plant a tree
  • I will produce zero waste for the week of Earth Day
  • Spend the day teaching my children more about it
  • Taking my child to the beach and picking up litter and teaching him the importance of taking care of our earth


  • Lack of convenient access      39 percent
  • Lack of space in my home for extra bins        35 percent
  • Lack of time to separate recyclables        29 percent
  • Don’t have enough information regarding recycling       22 percent
  • I’m too lazy      21 percent
For more information, visit