How Has COVID-19 Shaped the Public’s Thoughts and Behaviors Around Recycling?

Arlene Karidis, Freelance writer

April 15, 2021

6 Min Read
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COVID-19 has impacted almost every facet of life, including how we deal with our trash. The public’s behaviors, and in some instances attitudes, around waste generation and recycling have changed much in this “new world.”

Waste360 talked to Shawn Welch, vice president of Hi-Cone, a supplier of beverage ring carrier multi-packaging systems, about a report the company released that explores recycling trends since the pandemic hit. He shares key findings; what he thinks they mean; and he gives his take on what the future of recycling may look like once we pull out of the pandemic. He hints of new opportunity around the bend for governments and producers.

Waste360: What has Hi-Cone’s report shown about how well residents are doing with recycling? What do you think these findings mean?

Welch: Thirty-one percent of U.S. consumers responding to our annual State of Plastic Recycling Report stated that the COVID-19 pandemic has made them more likely to recycle their plastic packaging. At the same time, governments and the waste industry report that consumers are generating more waste at home. This leads us to an obvious dilemma. Waste suddenly increased in homes, but there was not a proportional increase in infrastructure or education to collect it, leaving any gains in collecting material strictly the responsibility of consumers.

Waste360: Does peoples’ recycling patterns through COVID-19  surprise you? Why or why not? 

Welch: While disheartening, it does not surprise me to see this because consumers continue to lack the education and resources needed in order to effectively recycle in their communities and feel confident doing so. For example, our survey found that 61 percent of U.S. consumers stated that they would recycle plastic more frequently if they had more facilities and/or guidance. This only continues to highlight the gap between consumer intentions and what they feel is realistically possible given what’s available to them currently.

Waste360: How do you think this excess waste affects their thoughts and behaviors now, and how might it affect them moving forward?

Welch: While we see a clear desire from a majority of respondents to recycle when possible, their behaviors will remain the same until there is more structural change as well as public awareness to allow them to feel more confident recycling. In our research, global respondents identified key stakeholders such as packaging manufacturers, consumer goods companies, and governments as being responsible for effective plastic recycling. They also identify themselves as being responsible, but it’s clear that the general public is looking to these large stakeholders to take the lead in this next chapter. In the respondents’ eyes, companies and governments are in a position to provide leadership and guidance in order to build knowledge and influence behavior toward a more circular economy.

Waste360: Can you explain the shift to greater acceptance of plastic packaging and its impact?

Welch: In our report, 36 percent of respondents felt more accepting of plastic packaging for sanitary reasons due to COVID-19.

At the beginning of 2020, several cities, such as New York, decided to implement the overall plastic ban across the district. However, as the nation began to understand the challenge at hand and fight the fast-moving spread of the COVID-19 virus, many of these bans were put on hold to favor single-use products as a sanitary solution to minimizing shared contact. More consumers felt it was safer to dispose of single-use items than to store them, leading to additional increases in plastic waste. Consumers also felt safer buying food products in packaging that they could wipe down to eliminate any germs. This not only explains an increase in waste, but also a newly developed public acceptance of plastic packaging for its sanitary solution to community spread.

Despite the reasons consumers said they were generating more plastic waste, only 38 percent of our global respondents said they were more likely to recycle their packaging due to COVID-19. This means that consumers are purchasing more goods with plastic packaging, but they are not necessarily recycling any more than they did prior to this increase in waste. This creates an ever-growing gap that will urgently need to be addressed if we are to confront the current plastic crisis and its impact on the environment. The only way to do so is through public education and easier-to-use systems.

 Hi-Cone has made considerable strides in its own sustainability journey. Among them are the formation of several cross-industry partnerships, including a recycling partnership with TerraCycle in the UK; with Avangard Innovative in the U.S.; and the launch of our post-consumer recycled (PCR) content product, RingCycles, which reduces the company’s use of virgin plastic by more than half.  

Waste360: What bearing might the pandemic have on recycling priorities once we push past it?

Welch: The experience of the pandemic has certainly shaped how we interact with our community and our environment in ways we could never have predicted. Ensuring practices are sanitary is just as important as ensuring they are sustainable. At the same time, COVID-19 also directly impacted our ability to keep circular economies and production a top priority. If we return to an effective path to solving the plastics crisis, governments and producers will have an opportunity to be recycling ambassadors, providing leadership and guidance to build consumer knowledge and motivate behavior.

Key stakeholders can capitalize on the public’s willingness to participate in the circular economy when making disposal choices. Through appropriate infrastructure and recycling schemes, there is opportunity to capture high percentages of materials and return them to production processes where they can begin a second useful ‘life.’ I have faith that just as brands and leaders rallied to fight the COVID-19 crisis, they can unite to solve our recycling shortcomings as well.

Waste360: How will the pandemic outcome shape/your business moving forward?

Welch: Hi-Cone remains committed to packaging solutions that contribute to a more circular economy to keep our products out of waste streams and the environment. We want to help ensure that consumers understand the term circular economy to increase participation to end plastic waste through the 3R’s (reuse, reduce, recycle).

Our goal is to collaborate with key stakeholders that respondents identified in this report as groups to make recycling function effectively.

Waste360: What will be key to boosting recycling post-pandemic?

Welch: Improving the overall system will only come through more concerted efforts to educate the public, and to create easy-to-use processes for consumers to engage with. Particularly following the pandemic, it will be important to remind key stakeholders that plastic packaging popularized during this time has benefits, such as keeping food hygienic, fresh, and safe … but how we dispose of plastics is a struggle. We need to do more to educate and ensure there is the infrastructure nationally and globally to better manage our waste. Societies across the world will have to reduce their reliance on single-use plastics and learn to recycle more effectively.

Moving forward we must create publicly-directed industry messaging, combined with robust education outreach to help eliminate confusion with the public and broaden involvement in the circular economy.

In addition to the warnings it bodes, this report does offer optimism in the form of clear desire and willingness from the public to support a circular economy. This means that there is an opportunity for key producers and governments to capitalize on this and engage the community in substantial change. Through appropriate infrastructure and recycling programs, we can capture high percentages of materials from used goods and return them to production processes where they can serve future generations and beyond.



About the Author(s)

Arlene Karidis

Freelance writer, Waste360

Arlene Karidis has 30 years’ cumulative experience reporting on health and environmental topics for B2B and consumer publications of a global, national and/or regional reach, including Waste360, Washington Post, The Atlantic, Huffington Post, Baltimore Sun and lifestyle and parenting magazines. In between her assignments, Arlene does yoga, Pilates, takes long walks, and works her body in other ways that won’t bang up her somewhat challenged knees; drinks wine;  hangs with her family and other good friends and on really slow weekends, entertains herself watching her cat get happy on catnip and play with new toys.

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