Millennials Are Less Likely to Recycle, but More Likely to Buy From Green Companies


Consumers continue to demand that companies play the role of good citizen, with younger generations leading the charge. Almost three out of four millennials now say they would pay more for a sustainable product. But these same individuals, those who came of age around the millennium and are now aged 18 to 35, may be less likely to engage in other sustainable activities, new research reveals.

Millennials are less likely to recycle than their older peers, according to a survey and report from the Shelton Group, a marketing and research firm focused on energy and the environment. Only 34 percent claimed to regularly recycle paper and aluminum cans, compared to 46 percent of Americans overall. Millennials are also 15 percent less likely to turn down the thermostat to save energy than the general population.

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Will those red Solo cups end up in the trash bin? Probably more than they should. Image credit: Flickr/Eric

When considering shifting cultural norms, this makes some sense. Older generations were brought up by the children of the Great Depression and lived by the overarching edict of "waste not, want not." The youth of the '60s and '70s championed "reduce, reuse, recycle" and gave us iconic ad campaigns like "The Crying Indian."

But the chief's anti-littering message would be largely lost on the young people of today: 41 percent of millennials admitted to having recently thrown trash out of a moving car.   

Some may be surprised by these results, but they're actually consistent with prior research published in 2014 and 2016. So what gives?

Have young people lost it?

Are young people less concerned with the environment than they claim? Do their commitments end at organic pour-over coffee and fair-trade flaxseed? Not so fast, say researchers, who claim their findings point to a clear conclusion: Millennials believe corporations have more power to solve global problems than individuals do.

"Millennials are pushing companies to make a positive impact on the world because they believe global problems are too big for individuals to solve," Suzanne Shelton, president and CEO of the Shelton Group, said in a statement. She calls the trend "reverse crowdsourcing."

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Modern throwaway culture may be taking its toll on young people’s attitudes toward recycling. Image credit: Flickr/Wolfram Burner

"Millennials see corporations as having the power of many—the ultimate crowd," she said. "Millennials see spending money with these companies as another form of activism. It's crowdsourcing by consumerism."

Some young people seem to agree. “I would compare an individual's ability to impact say, climate issues, to expecting us to solve the obesity epidemic through individually choosing to eat healthy,” said Justin Beideman, 31. “That is to say, everyone wants to be fit and healthy—and certain people may choose to shop at Whole Foods—but it simply isn't enough by itself. I don't think any one individual's willpower is stronger than our collective apathy."

Indeed, more than 75 percent of millennial respondents said they are "somewhat to extremely concerned about the impact climate change will have on their quality of life during their lifetimes," compared to only 51 percent of the general population. This recognition of a large and seemingly irreconcilable challenge may be part of the reason young people put less value on individual action.

But for some, the jury is still out. “I'm not surprised that a majority of young people feel this way, but I don't necessarily agree on a personal level,” said Dana Perich, 29. The Las Vegas school principal regularly separates her waste at home and work, and added, “I am more likely to recycle than spend more money on environmentally friendly companies."

What makes people recycle?

Jennifer Cardinale, 29, a bank manager from Philadelphia, admits that she rarely recycles, but in alignment with the Shelton Group study, insists it’s not an indication of indifference toward environmental causes. “If it will help the environment, I'll buy from companies that promote [sustainability], but I won't take the time to divide up my trash at home," she told AlterNet. "A lot of it is a matter of convenience and laziness. I'm also not that well-educated around what should be recycled and what should not."

The educational and awareness component is consistent with prior research around the psychology of recycling: "It's inconvenient," "it takes up too much time" and "I'm not sure what's recyclable" remain the primary reasons people say they opt out. And a 2009 paper from the University of Michigan indicates that communities with grant allocation for recycling education or equipment recycle significantly more than communities without such allocations.

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Recycling bins on campus at Penn State University. Image credit: Flickr/Penn State

Marcos Charcopa, 35, who immigrated to Mount Kisco, New York, with his mother and brother in the early 1990s, tells a similar story. “My family never recycled in Ecuador, so the concept was completely new to us," he told AlterNet. "But because the township took the time to educate people to recycle, after no time the act of recycling became second nature in our home."

Despite unfamiliarity with recycling, Charcopa said his mother’s attitudes about waste mimic the Depression-era norms that have long since passed in the U.S. "I come from a household that reuses things over and over again until there is little or no life left,” said Charcopa, who now lives in Dallas. "When I was little, a plastic bag from the supermarket became a lunch bag, which would occasionally become lining between your socks and your shoes during snow storms, which would then become a trash bag."

Could returning to a bygone mindset about waste finally move the needle on America's persistent 34 percent recycling rate? That’s what new movements such as How2Recycle Label are banking on.

"When we see packaging as trash, we're missing out," the How2Recycle team said in its first consumer education video released last year. "When we see packaging as valuable, recycling makes a lot of sense: Not only is it good for the environment, but it's good for the economy as well."

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Students participate in a recycling education initiative at the University of Washington in 2014. Image credit: Flickr/UW Sustainability

How2Recycle has since partnered with a host of big brands, such as Kraft Heinz and Walmart, to label consumer packaging with clear instructions about recyclability and proper disposal—a tactic that may appeal to young people who look to larger actors to fortify a sustainable future.

"Clearly, millennials are concerned about the environment, but many feel the problems are too big for them to tackle as individuals," Shelton said. "So they're looking to corporations to take action. That gives companies a real opportunity: Help the planet, help your business."

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