To hear someone describe it, Americans' attitude toward recycling is like a man or woman who has grown bored with his or her spouse. And instead of letting the relationship drift into further complacency, a group of organizations is seeking to re-introduce a romantic spark.
In late October, the National Recycling Council (NRC), in partnership with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and four trade associations representing the food and beverage industries, announced a multi-pronged effort to “reignite” Americans' interest in recycling by “providing clear, consistent information on what, how and why to recycle.”
“Our current research shows that Americans have lost their sense of urgency about recycling,” said Kate Krebs, executive director of NRC, in a statement announcing the project. “They aren't always sure about how or what to recycle. This campaign will remind Americans why recycling is as important as ever, and take our nation's recycling participation to the next level.”
According to EPA, the national recycling rate for 2005 was 32.1 percent, an increase from 31.4 percent in 2004 and 29.1 percent in 2000. Although the trend is inching upward, the rate of increase has slowed significantly since the 1990s. For example, in 1990, the rate was 16.2 percent. Just five years later, it had jumped to 26 percent. Additionally, recovery rates for specific types of recyclables — such as polyethylene terephthalate containers and aluminum cans — have decreased dramatically since the mid-1990s.
The first phase of the partnership's effort will include the design of consumer-tested symbols for use in recycling education materials and on products. The partnership also will conduct consumer research to help create a nationwide advertising campaign. Next year, in the second phase of the project, the partnership will launch the advertising campaign.
Given the recent amount of mainstream media coverage of environmental issues such as global warming and renewable energy, it seems reasonable to conclude that the American public is ready to be a receptive audience for the partnership's campaign.
However, getting the public fired up to place items in recycling bins is only one part of the equation. For recycling to succeed, it must be financially worthwhile for local governments and private firms to collect and process the materials and for manufacturers to use them. Furthermore, the public must be committed to buying items made from recyclables.
Still, the efforts and intentions of the new partnership deserve our applause. By trying to be a Dr. Phil for the relationship between Americans and recycling, the participating organizations have given us some hope for a more environmentally friendly future.
The author is the editor of Waste Age