Combatting Media Misinformation About Recycling

Background

In October 2022, Greenpeace made the claim that no plastic is “recyclable” in their report Circular Claims Fall Flat Again 2022 Update. While the report goes on to explain that “recyclable” refers actually to a recycling rate of 30%—referring to the standard set by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation- media outlets across the US published stories claiming that recyclable plastics are not being recycled. Also in October 2022, NPR published “Recycling Plastic Is Practically Impossible –And The Problem Is Getting Worse”. This article opened with “The vast majority of plastic that people use, and in many cases put into blue recycling bins, is headed to landfills”, strongly implying that recycling facilities send recyclable plastics to landfills. Furthermore, this story stated that “…no plastic — not even soda bottles…meets the threshold to be called ‘recyclable’ … Plastic must have a recycling rate of 30% to reach that standard”. The articles conflated the terms “recyclable” with “recycling rate” and misled consumers into thinking material placed in recycling bins was not being recycled even in parts of the country that have significant collection systems, processing and reprocessing capacity and end markets like the Northeast. This is not the case for common recyclables, so the statewide non-profit organization MassRecycle established a public education campaign to combat misinformation.

Plastic recycling is an everyday process, and a major industry, yet faces accusations that it is a hoax and simply the narrative of Big Oil. This case study explores MassRecycle’s work to counter the negative influence of recycling misinformation. Much of this work was undertaken by Gretchen Carey, MassRecycle President. The Republic Services GreenWorks Facility hosted the majority of tours. Tonnage data for this study was provided by a Massachusetts MRF.

Specific Intervention: Campaign to counter the negative influence of recycling misinformation in media.
Material Targeted: Plastics
Strategy Type: Non-regulatory

Key Strategies Used

Direct Response to the NPR Article

The first step taken in November 2022, was to directly respond to the widely circulated NPR article author. MassRecycle published an open letter on MassRecycle.org and linked to it through the MassRecycle Newsletter (3,500 subscribers) and LinkedIn. This letter was also emailed directly to the NPR reporter and the article’s author, Laura Sullivan. Versions were sent as Letters to the Editor to newspapers across Massachusetts.

Media Interviews, Presentations, and Personal Interactions

MassRecycle Board members gave multiple interviews to media outlets in the months following the Greenpeace report and throughout 2023. The following guidelines were used by Gretchen Carey to ensure that the resulting story was accurate and informative: Previous work from the reporter was first evaluated for a balanced, factual, thorough approach. Interview scope was limited to recycling in Massachusetts, acronyms were avoided, and background information on the industry was clearly explained. 1-2 sentences on various recycling topics were prepared to concisely summarize fundamental points. For example: “I think we can all agree that making paper from paper is better than making paper from trees.” These were often quoted in the resulting article. In general terms, final products made from each recycled material were identified, as people often do not recognize the manufacturing potential for aluminum, steel, and plastic. Demonstrations and site visits to MRFs were incorporated when possible.

Personal interactions at conferences, meetings, presentations, and facility tours were tailored and began by listening to audience concerns. Feedback indicated that even enthusiastic recyclers believe misinformation because it confirms fears. Concerns were addressed systematically, beginning with generally accepted concepts. For example, “Recycling is a business, and recycling facilities want to make money off of this material”. The idea that a business needs to generate revenue is widely accepted and can be easily supported, thus allowing the listener to accept that recyclable materials are valued and being recycled. Listening first, being transparent, inviting questions, and laying a foundation of widely understood facts built a trust that could then be expanded upon.

Recycling In Action: MRF Tours

Knowing that the media was confused about what was actually happening with recycling, MassRecycle chose to challenge their audience to “See it for yourselves”. To offer direct evidence of recycling, MassRecycle arranged public tours of material recovery facilities (MRFs). MRF tours included GreenWorks in Peabody, Massachusetts, The Springfield MRF in Springfield Massachusetts, OPRSystems in Wilmington Massachusetts, and All American MRF in Berlin Connecticut. An additional tour was held by a plastics processor using recycled plastics, Aaron Industries in Leominster Massachusetts. Gretchen Carey gave an additional 18 public tours of GreenWorks over the course of the year. MassRecycle’s tours were advertised on the MassRecycle.org website and in the MassRecycle newsletter. Links to videos of the Springfield MRF’s sorting process were included in the announcement of that tour. The offer of open facility tours gave evidence of recycling to the broader public.

Not only were MassRecycle members invited, but also municipal sustainability teams, businesses, friends and family, and anyone who had questions about how recycling was really happening. MassRecycle made it clear that anyone could verify for themselves the truth about recycling. From November 2022 – November 2023, Gretchen Carey gave no fewer than 77 recycling presentations, meetings, and Peabody MRF tours, attended by over 2,000 people. Personal interactions provided tailored messaging and gave individuals information to share with their personal networks.

Scope of Impact: Local, Regional and National

Impacts

Recycling of Plastics Correlated with Recycling Image in Media

Data from one Massachusetts MRF showed a severe drop in plastics tonnages in October and November 2022. The timing of this decrease correlated with the Greenpeace report (October 2022), and the widely circulated NPR article, where NPR highlighted the Greenpeace claim that plastic water bottles were “not recyclable”. The MRF included in this study showed that the plastic that composes single-use water bottles, polyethylene terephthalate (PET), and the plastic commonly used in detergent containers, high density polyethylene (HDPE), dropped to half of the tonnage seen in the previous months.
Pigmented HDPE and PET tonnages rose in December and recovered to their pre-October 2022 values by March 2023. This period correlates with both MassRecycle’s response to misinformation and diminished media coverage suggesting recycling is fraudulent. While this data is from a single MRF, fluctuations in tonnage support the hypothesis that consumers change their behavior based on negative or positive coverage of recycling.

Accurate Media Coverage

Supported Recycling and Recycling Professionals Interviews given resulted in reports from Boston 25 News, CBS Boston (468,000 nightly viewers) , WBUR, the Boston Globe, Waste Drive, and Waste Advantage Magazine. Interviews were given by: Waneta Trabert, MassRecycle Vice President and City of Newton Director of Sustainable Materials Management, Mike Orr, MassRecycle Secretary and City of Cambridge Recycling Director, Gretchen Carey, MassRecycle President and Sustainability Manager for the New England Region at Republic Services. The campaign provided accurate information to the public and supported public-facing waste management professionals. Media stories implying that recycling is landfilled led to the need for professionals to defend both recycling and their personal roles.

Increased Engagement with MassRecycle Resources

Since November 2022, MassRecycle has incorporated messaging to combat misinformation into communications and events. There has been a notable increase in attendance at the MassRecycle Conference and MRF tours, and in the percentage of recipients opening the email containing the MassRecycle Newsletter. Most MRF tours filled up quickly and there were waiting lists for several. The Newsletter containing an NPR article rebuttal saw a 35.6% open rate, as opposed to an average 31.32% over the surrounding 6 newsletters. Misinformation was a new topic at the 2023 MassRecycle Conference; attendance increased 93%. (Note: 2023 was in-person whereas 2022 was held virtually.) Comparing in-person events: the 2019 Conference saw 192 attendees, versus 286 in 2023. Increased engagement reflects waste professionals’ challenges and value they found in tools to combat misinformation.

Lessons Learned

Media coverage has repeatedly portrayed recycling as a flawed system. To counteract mistrust fueled by inflammatory reporting, accurate information about recycling that is conveyed through media, personal interactions, and facility tours can be a valuable strategy for reclaiming and increasing recycled material.

Contact
Gretchen Carey
President
MassRecycle
President@MassRecycle.org | https://massrecycle.org/