avatar image for Julie Cook
Julie Cook Kitchener Apr 1, 2024 12:41 pm
Hi all,
The problem with waste in the United States is growing every year, as is Americans’ concerns about it. Less than a quarter of waste in the U.S. is recycled. When it comes to plastics, that number is less than 10% (this is also true in Canada). Much of that waste ends up polluting our environment, and by extension, our bodies. 
A few sustainability and behaviour researchers in the U.S. wanted to know how well people understand waste and recycling in their daily lives. Through several studies published in Nature Sustainability, they surveyed 1500 American adults and discovered that people tend to overlook source reduction (i.e. producing less waste in the first place) in favor of recycling. When asked, “What is the single most effective thing you can do in your day-to-day life that helps solve [the waste] problem?” nearly half of respondents answered “recycling”. When survey respondents did understand that source reduction is more impactful than recycling, there was a sense of disempowerment in terms of effecting change upstream. 
Although there is a place for recycling in sustainable waste management systems, there needs to be more options for U.S. citizens to reduce waste at the source. Some jurisdictions have implemented ‘producer pays’ models where the manufacturer is responsible for the entire life cycle of the product. This is very effective in terms of waste reduction, but we can do even more. Citizens could also be more educated about the overall impact of purchasing less in the first place. Campaigns that are fun and engaging, and include public commitments to waste reduction could be impactful. 
For some inspiration, check out the Race to Zero Waste competition, which takes place on university and college campuses across North America. The University of Ottawa has won this competition ten times since 2009. Interestingly, this competition used to be called RecycleMania, which indicates there’s a growing awareness out there about the need for source reduction. 
If you’d like more information on the research studies, you can find the write up on the Behavioural Scientist website, or go directly to the studies themselves (they are open access).