Despite Understanding Benefits Consumers Still Confused About What Can Be Recycled

Nine in ten adults (87%) report that they recycle, though only half of adults (51%) recycle every day, according to a national survey of over 1,000 U.S. adults conducted by Ipsos Public Affairs on behalf of Yesterday’s News. Roughly a third (36%) tend to recycle less frequently, while 13% admit that they never recycle. Those most likely to recycle on a daily basis are college graduates (59%), adults aged 55 and older (57%), residents of the Northeast (58%) and West (56%).


U.S. adults do see a wide variety of benefits of recycling, particularly that it helps to reduce landfills (81%), saves trees (69%), and conserves energy (62%). Many also believe that recycling has economic benefits, such as creating jobs (45%) and making money (33%). Very few are unsure of the benefits (3%) or do not see any of these as advantages.


Though many acknowledge the many benefits of recycling, adults cite a variety of barriers that prevent them from recycling more, with the top reason being that it is not accessible or convenient to where they live (25%). Others report that it is too time consuming (10%), that they just forget (10%), that they aren’t sure what is recyclable and what isn’t (8%), or the cost (6%). Very few report that ideological concerns prevent them from recycling more often, such as feeling their efforts wouldn’t make a difference (3%), not thinking it’s important (2%), or not understanding the environmental benefit (1%). At the same time, a majority (52%) reports that none of these barriers prevent them from recycling.


Nearly three quarters (72%) report that they recycle to most at home, either through curbside recycling (46%) or by taking their recyclables to a local recycling center (26%). Just 6% say that they recycle most at work, though this proportion jumps to 11% among full-​time workers. One in ten (10%) say that they recycle elsewhere and 12% report that they do not recycle at all.

The most commonly recycled items include plastics, such as water bottles and packaging (69%); metals, such as soda cans and soup cans (64%); newspapers (56%); other paper products such as cardboard boxes, magazines, junk mail, etc. (56%); and glass, such as jars and juice bottles (49%). Fewer report that they most recycle electronics, such as CDs or old computer parts (14%) or other items (4%).

  • Older adults, college graduates, and residents of the Northeast – those who also tend to recycle most frequently, are also more likely to recycle a wider variety of items, particularly glass, newspapers, and other paper products.


While majorities say that they recycle plastics, metal and paper products, there does some to be some confusion about which items can be recycled and which cannot. While majorities understand that cell phones (78%) and motor oil (67%) can be recycled, many are unaware that other, less typical items can also be recycled, such as trophies (36%) and crayons (36%). Conversely, many may be trying to recycle items that are not actually recyclable, such as pizza boxes (77%) and juice boxes (73%). Waxed paper and cardboard that is contaminated by food cannot be recycled.

Similarly, many adults are unconscious of the fact that certain household items are often made from recycled paper. A third (34%) report that they would be most surprised to learn that cat litter can be made from recycled paper, followed by greeting cards (8%), egg cartons (6%), and phone books (5%). However, nearly half (48%) say that they would not be surprised to learn that any of these items are made from recycled materials.

  • Adults under 35 (42%) and residents of the West (41%) are most likely to be surprised that cat litter can be made from recycled paper. However, there is very little difference between cat owners and those without a cat at home (33% vs. 35%).

When unsure as to whether an item is recyclable, half of adults (50%) say that they are most likely to just throw the item away. Roughly one in six (18%) say that they would put it into the recycling bin anyway. Just a quarter (26%) report that they would look it up before deciding whether to throw it in the trash or the recycling bin.

Perhaps some of these misperceptions about what can be recycled and what can’t stems from a lack of information. Nearly half (47%) say that they haven’t learned anything about recycling in over six months and 12% report that they have never learned anything about recycling. At the same time, some are exposed to this information more regularly, with 13% reporting that they are flooded with information about recycling and an additional 29% saying that they learned something about recycling in the last month.

[Source:  "Nine in Ten Adults Recycle, but Only Half Do So Daily."  Ipsos Public Affairs/Yesterday's News.  13 July 2011.  Web.  22 July 2011.]