Although recycling has seemingly become a norm, the statistics show that in reality this is not the case. In 2021, only 5% to 6% of plastic was recycled and about 35% of total waste was disposed of. These numbers may come as shocking since brands and companies are striving to include more eco-friendly practices and produce more sustainable products. Consumer demand for increased sustainability and awareness has also risen but the concerning reality is that there are flaws in the system and not every item that is disposed of in recycling bins actually gets recycled. The reason behind these challenges includes recycling confusion due to labeling, a lack of return on investment and improper handling.
Why isn’t there enough confidence in recycling?
Despite the growing concern about global warming and mass global pollution, the solution to getting consumers to recycle is still a great challenge. Although companies are increasingly taking more efforts to make their products and packaging recyclable or more environmentally friendly, the recycling process is anything but simple.
What consumers do find simple is throwing an item in any bin and leaving the refuse collections to deal with it. But the issue is that when the refuse is collected, it ends up in a landfill. To put it into perspective, statistics show that in the US, people generate 300 million tons of rubbish a year and only 33% of it is recycled and 12.5% is taken to incinerators. The rest is buried in landfills which take years to break down and disintegrate. For example, aluminum takes 500 years while plastic and glass take 1 million years respectively.
Although these statistics should be alarming enough to encourage consumers to recycle and adopt a more eco-conscious mindset, they are flooded with confusion which makes them lose confidence in the recycling process. Consumers don’t understand what can be recycled and what can’t be. They end up adding non-recyclable items in the recycling bin and items that can be recycled end up in landfills. Without a standard for recycling processes, consumers are left to make their best guesses about how to recycle and take the welfare of the environment into their own hands.
Many companies also make it challenging for consumers to recycle their packaging or products. Consumers generally have to work to recycle their waste as companies use surface-level attempts to appear more environmentally friendly but instead end up frustrating consumers because the guidance and framework are not clear or convenient. For example, incorrect labeling can confuse consumers on how best to dispose of the item. Statistics show that 25% of consumers are confused by recycling rules and are not sure about how to play their part effectively. This calls for more companies to take the lead in guiding their consumers so they are less confused and more efficient
Companies like GPA Global, experts in sustainable packaging solutions, work with industry-leading clients to help them provide better products. They not only focus on sustainable materials in their mission to help the environment, but they also work to reduce transport emissions and their entire business’s carbon footprint at every step in their supply chain, including emissions from their affiliates and suppliers. A holistic approach such as GPA Global’s keeps them active, engaged and accountable so that their efforts go beyond just surface level. Optimizing sustainability goals through an iterative process can help more companies take a more serious stance on sustainability.
How can we stop the problem from escalating
Consistency is key to ensuring that consumers are not overwhelmed or confused. Although 94% of consumers support recycling and nearly 80% of them consider sustainability when making purchases, only 35% of people recycle. To bridge the disconnect means enabling more people to recycle through education, correct labeling and access.
Recycling is usually left up to individuals and communities to make their own decisions to find the most impactful and sustainable solutions. Governments may encourage the public to follow sustainable practices and impose regulations on companies to do the same but don’t set up effective programs to empower their citizens to recycle.
Leaving consumers to their own devices becomes overwhelming for them and leads to inconsistent processes. This is further diminished by unequal access. For example, in the US, there are not any federal programs that consumers can rely on to assist with recycling. Only selected communities have access to recycling opportunities like curbside pickup or a facility within a considerable distance to dispose of recyclable packaging like glass bottles or plastic bags. There is a gulf between communities depending on income with the low-income communities devastatingly lacking in recycling programs. A disjointed system with unequal access results in poor sustainable practices which frustrate consumers and hurt the environment. If governments stepped up and took the initiative to offer services to assist the public with recycling, it would be more successful. Those communities that have the advantage of access to recycling programs or facilities still face the dilemma of not being able to recycle any type of material. For example, glass presents difficult recycling challenges and so consumers may not come across a glass recycling facility easily.
What’s needed is a solution that can help consumers with their recycling to ensure that there is no confusion about what is recyclable and what isn’t. If companies and governments took a stand to give the public clearer communication and consistency with regard to recycling, the potential for positively impacting the environment will be more effective and efficient.
Is recycling worth it?
Recycling is always worth it. Now more than ever, the environment is everyone’s responsibility and it shouldn’t be left up to a select few to make a difference in driving change for the better. If mass amounts of toxic waste continue to accumulate, we will continue to experience devastating effects such as global warming and health concerns. The current convoluted system needs to be reviewed so that consumers are guided properly to ensure that recycling can be 100% effective and not 33% as it currently is.