Sorry, but Recycling Won't Stop Climate Change

A new study shows people believe recycling is the answer to the climate crisis.

green recycling bin outside on patio filled with plastic and glass bottles

Peter Dazeley / Getty Images

The stock photo catalog is full of recycling superheroes ripping open their shirts; this guy has been doing it for decades. Recycling has such a firm place in our psyche: We have previously shown studies spotlighting that people think it is the single most important thing they can do to live a longer and healthier life.

Now market research company Ipsos has released Perils of Perception, a survey of 21,011 adults in 30 markets, and finds that the majority of people believe the most important thing they can do to reduce greenhouse emissions and fight climate change is recycling as much as possible.

IPSOS options

Buying renewable power and getting an electric car come in second and third place, respectively. Actions that make a serious difference, like giving up cars or meat, are down at the bottom.

Also noteworthy is that "having one fewer child" is listed by Ipsos as the action with the most climate impact. This dominated the chatter on Twitter. Ipsos made its ranking based on the findings of a 2017 Lund University study, which also had people talking when its findings were released, as can be seen from the comments in the coverage.

To avoid it dominating the discussion here, here's what the Lund University study had to say:

"For the action 'have one fewer child,' we relied on a study which quantified future emissions of descendants based on historical rates, based on heredity (Murtaugh and Schlax 2009). In this approach, half of a child's emissions are assigned to each parent, as well as one-quarter of that child's offspring (the grandchildren) and so forth."

The calculation is vague and wildly variable. So much so that it probably shouldn't have been included at all and is a real distraction in this discussion.

For all of the talk about the climate crisis, apparently, people are not taking it very seriously. According to the Ipsos press release:

"When asked about the warming we are already experiencing, there is little evidence that the public knows that all of the last six years were among the hottest on record. When asked how many years since 2015 have been the hottest year on record, most were too unsure to answer. Those who did answer tended to underestimate. Only 4% of respondents around the world gave the correct answer of all six years. While 73% did not know how many years have been the hottest on record, a further23% said fewer than 6."

With respect to questions of diet recently discussed on Treehugger: "Almost 6 in 10 people around the world (57%) say eating a locally-produced diet, including meat and dairy products, is a better way to reduce an individual’s greenhouse gas emissions while only 20% say eating a vegetarian diet with some imported products is more effective."

But it is the responses to recycling and packaging questions that are the real questions here, where respondents surveyed believe less packaging was more effective (52%) than renovating a house for efficiency (35%). According to Ipsos, the inverse is true.

How Did It Come to This?

actions that. people take graph
The Standard issue/ USGBC

It is a subject we have been discussing on Treehugger for a dozen years, starting with "Recycling is BS," the argument being that recycling was invented by the plastics and bottling industry as a transfer of responsibility from the manufacturer to the taxpayer who has to pick up their garbage and take it away. Or more bluntly, "a sham, a scam perpetrated by big business on the citizens and municipalities of America." More recently I decried it as the "Convenience Industrial Complex," designed to get us to consume more single-use plastic.

When I first wrote of this earlier graph I noted that it "makes me just want to give up and end it all," because of this perception about the importance of recycling compared to other things that make a much bigger difference, and the Ipsos data are even more shocking. I come to the same conclusion now as I did with the earlier one:

"Really, one can only marvel at this, at how successful industry has been at making the world safe for single-use products. And how badly we have failed in promoting green space, green building, and of course, the urgency of the climate crisis."

Treehugger reached out to Sophie Thompson, a research executive at Ipsos who worked on the Perils of Perception report for her thoughts on why recycling was such a preoccupation with the people surveyed.

"The high impact (mistakenly) attributed to recycling and packaging reduction may indicate confusion between issues such as plastic pollution and climate change, with the public grouping these environmental issues together rather than thinking about them separately," says Thompson. "There have been many vivid, emotive stories about plastic pollution in the media – such as the BBC’s infamous Blue Planet II episode on plastics pollution – and ‘emotional innumeracy’ can lead us to overestimate or misplace the impacts of issues that affect us in this way."

Others have noted that recycling is easy and relatively painless, and doesn't require any radical shift in lifestyle. Or, as Thompson notes:

"It is important to note that all of the actions listed in the research can make a difference, but that public awareness of which actions will make the most difference is very low. Therefore, with limited attention and time to give to these issues, the public may prioritise actions that have little impact over those that may be much more impactful. Many may be quite happily separating their cans and jars for recycling and then feeling good about planning a long-haul holiday to the Maldives, thinking the former makes up for the latter, when in fact the long-haul flights have a far greater impact."
recycling heroes
StockPlanets/ Getty Images

Thompson says there are so many things that affect our perceptions: "Our maths and statistical skills, critical literacy and biases — and also what we’re told — whether by the media, on social media, by politicians and through our own experiences of the world."

Or perhaps the giant Convenience Industrial Complex has done such a wonderful job, training us from an early age to the point where Ipsos finds that 59% of the world thinks that sorting their disposable packaging into piles is the best way to fight climate change. What a world.

View Article Sources
  1. Wynes, Seth, and Kimberly A. Nicholas. "The Climate Mitigation Gap: Education and Government Recommendations Miss the Most Effective Individual Actions." Environmental Research Letters, vol. 12, no. 7, 2017, p. 074024, doi:10.1088/1748-9326/aa7541