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Which Consumers are Leading the Recycling Charge?

Understanding the differing recycling and sustainability viewpoints of baby boomers and Generations X, Y, and Z.

Tom Newmaster, Partner

June 11, 2024

6 Min Read
Generational differences in recycling graphic
Rick Lingle via Canva

At a Glance

  • Generational differences in recycling habits are explored.
  • Gen Z leads in sustainability, but lags in recycling.
  • Boomers top eco-conscious behaviors, Gen Z are the most skeptical.

I recently visited the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago. Heralded as one of the country’s oldest museums dedicated to interactive education, the 350,000 SF museum houses more than 2,000 exhibits. While I enjoyed wandering the various corridors to learn about agriculture, technology, transportation, energy, and communications, one exhibit had me mesmerized.

Titled “The Blue Paradox,” the exhibit invites visitors to make their way down a corridor surrounded by images of piles upon piles of plastic. Some even feature people perilously perched on top of the piles, rummaging for items to sell.

Next, you transition into a room with neither chairs nor windows. It appears to be a mirrored surface above, below, and around you. But as we settled in, we were literally surrounded by the sights and sounds of a video about our oceans. Ocean waves rolled above our heads, below our feet, all around us. Fish and other marine life swam quietly beside us. It was breathtaking.

The overall theme of Blue Paradox is — you guessed it — our plastics problem. With the message that, although humans are to blame for this problem, there are solutions if we work toward the common goal. I was left feeling a bit defeated, but also hopeful.

As a packaging designer, I understand both sides of this issue. Plastic is a cheap, durable packaging option, but there’s simply too much of it. Add recycling infrastructure issues to that, and the problem is compounded.

What does that say about recycling’s future? Let’s look the situation through the lens of the different generations.

A review of generational recycling habits and beliefs.

First a definition of each group:

  • Baby boomers aka boomers are those born between 1946 and 1964;

  • Gen X are those born between 1965 and 1980;

  • Gen Y aka millennials are those born between 1981 and 1996;

  • Gen Z are those born between 1997 and 2012.

By 2020, Gen Z was reported to be leading the pack in “sustainable retail.” Prior to that, a  2015 Nielsen report cited that 73% of millennials claimed to be willing to pay more for sustainable goods. The same was said for Gen Z, who began entering the workforce at the time of the study. In that study, 54% of Gen Zs expressed a willingness to spend 10% more for sustainable products, with 50% of Millennials joining the movement, compared to 34% Gen X and only 23% of baby boomers aka boomrs. That would have us believe that with each generation, the quest for sustainability strengthens.

But does retail purchasing behavior translate to recycling? Not so much.

Generational-Differences-Recycling-Rift-2000x1125.png

According to a study conducted by Boxed Water, Gen Z shows a surprising amount of apathy when it comes to recycling. Though 82% are somewhat or “very” worried about the impact of single-use plastic, just a little over half (56%) actively recycle, compared to 67% of boomers. Here’s how the numbers break out if you look at barriers to recycling:

  • More than 4 out of 10 say “just because it goes into a recycling bin doesn’t mean it gets recycled.”

  • 33% cited “lack of convenience.”

  • 28% cited “confusion about what can actually be recycled.”

The final number is disappointing: “Only 5 percent of Americans recycle plastic regularly,” but that number varies across generations.

So, why is Gen Z so apathetic about recycling? A licensed therapist attached to the study believes they are more inclined to apathy because they distrust their efforts making any impact at all, remarking: “this generation is inundated with information revealing that what you see isn’t always what you get.”

Their generation is aware that profit is a bottom line and are weary of corporations and the government overpromising and under delivering.

What else have we learned about the various generations and their eco-habits?

Which demographic better walks the eco-talk?

A 2018 survey of 2,000 Americans from all three generations reveals interesting insights about their eco-friendly habits. Here’s what the research determined:

Water:

  • Boomers shower and run the dishwasher the least.

  • Gen Xers shower more than seven times weekly.

  • Millennials do the least amount of laundry and almost never wash jeans.

Energy:

  • Boomers use the least amount of TV and streaming, while millennials score the highest.

  • Gen Xers have the highest electric bills, and millennials the lowest.

  • Millennials score highest for green commuting, while Gen Xers drive to work.

  • Boomers win for cutting back on electricity, but millennials have the lowest electric bills.

Recycling:

  • Millennials are most likely to use recyclable bags and sign up for paperless billing.

  • Boomers are most likely to recycle electronics, such as cell phones.

  • Gen Z scored 0 in this part of the survey.

Food:

  • Millennials are least likely to eat red meat, while boomers are most likely.

  • Gen X and boomers are most likely to compost waste.

  • Millennials throw away 10+ pounds of food per week.

Surprise! Boomers came out the most eco-conscious of the generations, although each group has ample room for improvement. Interestingly, boomers are demonstrating real care for the environment by cutting back on electricity, being food conscious, composting, and recycling. However, I think this calls for a reality check.

Recycling actions speak louder than words.

Studies show that merely believing in the importance of protecting the environment doesn’t necessarily translate into pro-environmental activity at any age.

Yossi Sheffi, director of MIT’s Center for Transportation and Logistics, and author of Balancing Green: When to Embrace Sustainability in a Business and When Not To notes in his book “In the checkout line, we don’t tend to put our money where our environmental mouths are, regardless of age. Although some surveys show that most consumers say they want sustainable products, sales data show that only a small percentage are willing to pay more to buy them.”               

But how does recycling confusion break out by generation?

Generations-Recycle-Reduce-Reuse-1250x703.png

Although millennials were raised in classrooms bearing the sign, “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle,” most are thoroughly confused about America’s recycling system. If you look at the rules about what can and what can’t be tossed in the recycling bin, it’s more complex than ever to recycle without making mistakes.

A 2019 study uncovered a lot of confusion among the different generations specific to recycling:

However, 44% of millennials are repeat buyers of recyclable products, compared to 26% overall. One result has been the 100% commitment by 25 of the largest consumer packaged brand companies to include more recyclable materials in their products. 

That’s great, but how prepared are states and municipalities to sort these new, recycle-ready products? And is a 100% commitment promise a tangible goal for CPG companies? These are serious conundrums, some of which are being tackled by today’s influencers.

In part two of this series, we’ll review the countries, people, and businesses working to make a difference.

About the Author(s)

Tom Newmaster

Partner, FORCEpkg

Tom Newmaster has more than 30 years of experience in branding and package design for consumer packaged goods companies. From 1998 to 2016, he led creative and won awards for The Hershey Co., Pfizer, Stoner Car Care, and Zippo. He has launched new products for Fresh Solutions Network, Koch’s Turkey, Klamath Basin Fresh Organics, and Wolfgang Candy to name a few. In 2017, Newmaster started FORCEpkg and since then has become a leading voice in the packaging industry and has written for top trade and mainstream business publications.

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