By Magdalene Sim
For nearly twenty years, Americans have been coming together each November 15 to mark America Recycles Day. If you missed it this past Sunday, it is the one day dedicated to educating and motivating friends, family and colleagues about the importance and impact of recycling. Today, recycling has become such an integral part of American life that almost everyone recognizes that iconic chasing arrows recycling symbol, which we see everywhere. So do we really need one day set aside to promote recycling?
If you read John Tierney’s much-talked about October article in The New York Times, “The Reign of Recycling,” you would know that the answer is yes. We still need America Recycles Day because there are still a lot of misconceptions and misstatements about recycling.
Tierney’s argument for landfilling over recycling prompted a very public outcry. Our response to Tierney's article, along with numerous other passionate counter-arguments in the media, reveals a strong and continuing need for education about the real value of recycling. This is necessary to prevent rollbacks on any investments and progress made in recycling over the years.
Even for those already convinced of the necessity of closing the loop, there is often a disconnect between wanting to recycle and knowing how and what to recycle.
Let’s come back to that ubiquitous recycling symbol for a moment. In general, we all know that the symbol represents recycling. But it can also be found in various forms on various products, where it can mean various things. For example, on many different plastic containers, you may see the chasing arrows symbol used with different numbers. Does that mean the items are recyclable? Or that they contain recycled materials? The short answer is no. (For a more detailed answer, see this TriplePundit article.)
Like plastic, the vast variety of paper presents a similar problem. There’s waxed paper, colored paper, magazine paper, receipts, envelopes and more. What type of paper can be recycled? This is one of the most common questions we get asked. With paper making up the largest percentage of the municipal solid waste stream in the U.S., and over 80 percent of office waste (along with cardboard), you can see how big a problem this confusion can be. And if you are still wondering what type of paper can be recycled? Watch this 30-second recycling tip video to find out.
While America Recycles Day offers a crucial opportunity for much-needed recycling education, it is also important for another reason - the human element.
America Recycles Day still matters because it brings people together in thousands of community and workplace events organized across the country. And this has incredible power to move the needle on recycling.
"Having an individual or a community group take the time to organize an event in their community – whether it is at a school, one’s workplace, a government office or even in front of your local grocery store – where they can share information about what is recycled in their community with their friends and neighbors, can leave an indelible impression," explains Brenda Pulley, senior vice president of recycling at Keep America Beautiful, the organization responsible for America Recycles Day.
"This peer-to-peer, personal 'nudge' is one of the most effective ways to encourage the act of recycling.”
Indeed, studies have shown that bringing people together to raise environmental awareness encourages group action and a shared sense of responsibility.
Even the simple act of signing an online recycling pledge can have a positive effect.
"There is research indicating that the act of taking a pledge makes individuals more likely to take the desired action," notes Pulley. "We commissioned a literature review, report and recommendations on our 'I Will Recycle' pledge approach. In a post-pledge survey, participants self-reported that they were recycling more (34 percent) and encouraged others to recycle as well (32 percent)."
And finally, America Recycles Day also provides an opportunity to expand the conversation beyond recycling, to talk about how to deal with items that are not commercially recycled, such as air filters and candy wrappers, which can be upcycled into new and unique products through custom programs.
So yes, we still need America Recycles Day because it affects what we do the other 364 days of the year.
We need that one day to clear misconceptions about the value of recycling, to teach people how to recycle properly, and to bring people together to make a difference. With the current U.S. recycling rate hovering around 34 percent, about half the rate of Austria, the world’s top recycler at 63 percent - there is still much room to grow.
Magdalene Sim is Director of Communications, at Great Forest Inc., a leader in sustainability consulting for over 20 years. Great Forest spearheads sustainability solutions and provides project management expertise to clients nationwide, ranging from Fortune 500 companies to educational institutions, hotels, retailers and property management companies.