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Covanta Survey: “Americans Don’t Know How to Recycle”

A survey commissioned by Covanta found 62 percent of respondents worry that a lack of knowledge causes them to recycle incorrectly.

Americans don’t know how to recycle—and that lack of knowledge is the biggest barrier to being green, according to new research.

A survey of 2,000 Americans revealed that 62 percent of respondents 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 different materials could be recycled.

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 sustainable lives.

More than half of respondents (53 percent) erroneously believe greasy pizza boxes can be recycled, while 68 percent incorrectly think the same for used plastic utensils. 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 Paul Gilman, chief sustainability officer at Covanta, in a statement. “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 a sustainable 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 every day.

According to the survey, 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 lifestyle, with a fifth willing to shell out more than $6,000 per year.

“We can all do our part to protect the planet,” continued 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.”

According to the survey, here is what Americans are doing in support of Earth Day:

  • Cut down on plastic bag use, stop using plastic straws and recycle more at home.
  • Read more about how to take good care of themselves and the environment.
  • Attend seminars on recycling, waste, the environment and climate change.
  • Make 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.
  • Plan on turning off most of the electronics and having a reading day with their family.
  • Organize a cleanup exercise.
  • Use as little water and electricity as possible.
  • Put in more time to educate others on the need to protect the environment.
  • Clean parks that have garbage and litter.
  • Make a commitment to recycle more.
  • Create awareness and possibly plant a tree.
  • Produce zero waste for the week of Earth Day.
  • Spend the day teaching their children more about it.
  • Take their children to the beach, pick up litter and teach them the importance of taking care of the planet.

According to the survey, these are the top reasons Americans recycle more often:

  1. Lack of convenient access—39 percent
  2. Lack of space in home for extra bins—35 percent
  3. Lack of time to separate recyclables—29 percent
  4. Don’t have enough information regarding recycling—22 percent
  5. Too lazy—21 percent
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