Recycling bias and reduction neglect

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In two nationwide surveys in the U.S. conducted in October 2019 and March 2022, scientists found that people overlook waste reduction and reuse in favor of recycling. They call this tendency “recycling bias and reduction neglect.” This is a challenge for implementing real solutions to plastic pollution, like reuse, that are focused on source reduction of plastic production.

Abstract: Waste generation and mismanagement are polluting the planet at accelerating and unsustainable rates. Reducing waste generation is far more sustainable than managing waste after it has been created, which is why ‘reduce, reuse, recycle’ is ordered the way it is, with reduce first and recycling as a last resort. However, our research finds strong evidence for a recycling bias and reduction neglect. Across two surveys (NTotal = 1,321), most participants perceived recycling as the most sustainable action to manage waste. This error decreased when different waste destinations were emphasized and when choice options were reduced. When asked in study 2 (N = 473), 53.9% of participants recognized that the product design stage offered the greatest potential for mitigating waste and its impacts. However, participants only felt empowered to enact change via their consumption (72.9%) and disposal choices (23.3%). For consumers and producers alike, policies and interventions should motivate source reduction and reuse, which could help correct the misplaced preference for recycling.

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