BLOOMINGTON, Ind. - Reducing waste is far better for the planet than recycling, but consumers have a bias toward recycling their trash rather than limiting their consumption, according to new research published in Nature Sustainability.
Lead author Michaela Barnett, from the University of Virginia’s Environmental Institute, said if people want to combat growing waste-related pollution, buying less is far more effective than recycling more.
Working alongside coauthors Patrick Hancock and Leidy Klotz of the University of Virginia and Shahzeen Attari of the Paul H. O’Neill School of Public and Environmental Affairs, Barnett emphasized that blame doesn’t lie solely with consumers.
“Producers create products that eventually become waste and saddle individuals with the responsibility of disposal,” Barnett said.
Recycling has long been promoted as a sustainable waste-management strategy, but current levels of trash generation have grown to unsustainable rates. In fact, waste overgeneration is predicted to accelerate, and the rate of acceleration is projected to be much faster than solutions can be put into place.
“In addition to global problems we’re seeing with plastic waste today, the production and mismanagement of consumer goods is a major source of greenhouse gas emissions, which contribute to climate change,” Barnett said. “Despite this, we discovered that people are much more likely to believe that recycling is the most effective option rather than reducing their consumption.”
The popular phrase “Reduce – Reuse – Recycle” orders the three R’s by which actions are most effective. First, reduce waste. Second, reuse instead of buying something new. Third, recycle waste.
But even while public concern over waste-related pollution has grown, waste generation has continued to increase, waste-related pollution has grown, and recycling rates remain stagnant. There is an obvious gap between what people think are effective solutions to pollution and the increasing waste issues.
For the new paper, the team asked a series of questions. Participants were given two sets of open-ended questions about what the most effective strategy would be when it came to reducing landfill waste and solving environmental problems associated with trash. In both cases, participants clearly chose recycling.
The researchers also asked study participants to rank different strategies from Reduce – Reuse – Recycle in order of most impactful to least. More than 78% of participants failed to place them in the correct order.
Participants believed that source reduction and reuse were roughly equivalent to recycling and composting in terms of environmental impact. Unfortunately, this is not the case.
“The results are stunning,” Barnett said. “Recycling products, while better than landfilling or incinerating, still takes energy and resources that can contribute to climate change. Reduction is far more effective as it prevents natural resource depletion and pollution at every stage of the supply chain. It seems that decades of pro-recycling education have caused people to forget that of the three R’s, the first two R’s have the most impact.”
The team then asked consumers about generated waste in a different way. When participants were given a visual diagram and asked to point to the most important stage for action during a product’s life cycle, most participants identified the “design” stage as critical. But only 1.9% of the respondents felt they had any power to make a difference in that stage.
When presented with fewer options, different end destinations for waste, and a systems diagram, responses moved toward reduction and reuse. The belief that recycling is the most effective strategy was not static.
With a visible model, responses changed. Nearly three-quarters of respondents—72.9%—said they felt they could enact change in the system through their consumption of products while 23.3% said they felt they could combat environmental problems by properly disposing of waste.
It seems that there is a difference in how people believe environmental problems caused by waste should be solved and whether they feel they have the power to do anything. People seem to know that mitigating harmful waste earlier in the process than at the end is more important than responsible disposal. But they don’t feel they can do anything about this.
When asked what they as individuals can do, people default to recycling. However, when asked what should be done in general, people acknowledge that preventing waste is much better.
Barnett and her coauthors believe that much of the over-emphasis on recycling and not enough focus on reduction has to do with feel-good actions. Acquiring goods and then either recycling or composting are tangible things people can do, see and feel good about. But buying less and reducing consumption are actions in absence.
“It seems that opting out of the dominant consumer culture may feel so inaccessible as to not even occur to people,” Barnett said. “People perceive recycling as their least worst option within the existing system.”