National Harbor, Md. — People want to recycle, but they are confused and being victimized by a system that's difficult to understand, one academic believes.
Jennifer Russell is an associate professor in the Department of Sustainable Biomaterials at Virginia Tech University. She had a rather blunt assessment on everyday citizens' role in plastics recycling.
"We've kept recycling behind this black box wall. Nobody know how it works. We try to simplify it, assume that consumers are stupid. 'They can't sort. They don't know what things are.' So we'll just make it easier and easier, and at the end of the day, all you have done is eliminate their ability to participate," she said at the recent Plastics Recycling Conference in National Harbor, near Washington, D.C.
Russell said people have the capacity to understand more about the recycling process.
"Complexity is not something to be afraid of. Complexity is something we already know how to communicate. We communicate about climate change without having to explain the mechanics of atmospheric science. We can do the same thing with recycling and bring people into the conversation so they can participate," she said.
"We've made it impossible for them to participate. We've confused the issue," she told a room full of industry participants. "We've changed the message hundreds of times. We send them indications we care, but at the end of the day, we spend a lot of time and money fighting policy and legislation and programing that would actually make it better and easier," Russell said.
"So there's a lot of mixed messages, and that not only erodes trust, but it's made them unwilling to participate," she said. "They are the key players in the system if you can't get them to put it in the right container."
Steve Alexander is the CEO of the Association of Plastic Recyclers, which organizes the annual conference through its Resource Recycling subsidiary.
"I think we have a tendency to make plastics recycling more complicated than it needs to be," Alexander said.
The plastics industry loves to point to lower greenhouse gas emissions when compared with other packaging substrates such as metal, paper and glass. And the plastics recycling industry touts its GHG levels are even lower than when virgin resin is used. Alexander said it should be fairly easy to connect the dots between climate and plastics recycling in the minds of the public.
"We can convince consumers that by putting their plastic in the bin, they are participating, themselves, in reducing their global footprint and reducing global climate change," he said. "That should be a connection we should be able to make. And it should be fairly straightforward."
Households want to participate in plastic recycling, Russell said: "They want to know the rules. They want the rules to be consistent. They don't want to be the ones that have to pay for it off their own backs when the revenue is going into the pockets of other people. So I think there's a fairness issue here as well. Fundamentally, we need to give everybody a lot more credit than we have historically and invite them back into the process."
Alexander sees consumers as a key to solving the current disconnect between plastics use and plastics recycling.
"The issue we have with plastic products is not a post-industrial issue; it's a consumer issue. It is the materials, the containers the consumers touch, use and discard every day," he said. "We're not here talking about plant scrap. We're talking about the products in the marketplace that consumers see. We're talking about marine debris. We're talking about liter and we're talking about the perception that plastics are not recyclable. We need to do a much better job about that."
Matt Seaholm is the CEO of the Plastics Industry Association, a trade group, and he was on the same panel discussion.
"I think we can all agree, and I think we are all in this room to acknowledge we don't recycle enough plastic. But it's not a lack of desire. I think it's some technical, a number of impediments throughout the infrastructure, consumer behavior as well," Seaholm said.
Panelists agreed that plastics cannot be sustainable without recycling, but recycling is not the only component of sustainability.