Alternative Policies to Increase Recycling of Plastic Water Bottles in the United States
Something that might have been, for many, a rare oddity or an out-of-the-way annoyance 20 years ago has now become commonplace: recycling. Scientific consensus on climate change, growing realization about the energy potential of trash, and other factors have given renewed impetus for cities and states to encourage recycling.When programs are done right, they not only help preserve resources but can also serve as a form of civic engagement. However, recycling rates have remained relatively stable over time while the production and use of plastic bottles has skyrocketed.
A 2012 study published in the Review of Environmental Economics and Policy, “Alternative Policies to Increase Recycling of Plastic Water Bottles in the United States,” explores how to improve recycling rates. The researchers, from Duke University and Vanderbilt University, used survey data from more than 600 respondents in 2009 to examine the effects of different recycling regimes on the recycling rates for plastic water bottles.
There are three approaches typically used to encourage recycling by the public: financial incentives, generally in the form of bottle deposits; making recycling more convenient through curbside pickup and other means; and mandatory recycling laws. Sixteen states have no state recycling law, seven have some form of mandatory recycling laws, and the remainder have varying levels of stringency.
The study’s key findings include:
- “The overall reported level of recycling was 6.4 bottles out of 10, which exceeds reported national recycling rates for bottles overall.”
- While there were large groups of non-recyclers and diligent recyclers, there was only a “small number of households in the moderate recycling category.”
- “States that have announced recycling goals, which are largely symbolic, and states with no recycling laws at all have the lowest levels of recycling.”
- “Mandatory, opportunity, and planning recycling states have most of the recycling rate distribution shifted to the upper end of the recycling amounts, with 85% of all households in the mandatory recycling states recycling between 80% and 100% of their bottles.”
- “The efficacy of [such] policies exhibits a discontinuous effect, characterized by a jump in the household behavioral response as effective laws transform non-recyclers into diligent recyclers.”
“Economic incentives matter,” the researchers conclude. “Reducing the time and convenience costs of recycling or increasing the financial reward for recycling both enhance the degree of recycling… But what is most interesting is that the recycling rate changes exhibit a jump from being non-recyclers to very diligent recyclers.”
Tags: municipal, recycling
Read the issue-related New York Times article titled "Nudging Recycling From Less Waste to None."
- What key insights from the news article and the study in this lesson should reporters be aware of as they cover these issues?
Read the full study titled “Alternative Policies to Increase Recycling of Plastic Water Bottles in the United States.”
- What are the study's key technical term(s)? Which ones need to be put into language a lay audience can understand?
- Do the study’s authors put the research into context and show how they are advancing the state of knowledge about the subject? If so, what did the previous research indicate?
- What is the study’s research method? If there are statistical results, how did the scholars arrive at them?
- Evaluate the study's limitations. (For example, are there weaknesses in the study's data or research design?)
- How could the findings be misreported or misinterpreted by a reporter? In other words, what are the difficulties in conveying the data accurately? Give an example of a faulty headline or story lead.
Newswriting and digital reporting assignments
- Write a lead, headline or nut graph based on the study.
- Spend 60 minutes exploring the issue by accessing sources of information other than the study. Write a lead (or headline or nut graph) based on the study but informed by the new information. Does the new information significantly change what one would write based on the study alone?
- Compose two Twitter messages of 140 characters or fewer accurately conveying the study’s findings to a general audience. Make sure to use appropriate hashtags.
- Choose several key quotations from the study and show how they would be set up and used in a brief blog post.
- Map out the structure for a 60-second video segment about the study. What combination of study findings and visual aids could be used?
- Find pictures and graphics that might run with a story about the study. If appropriate, also find two related videos to embed in an online posting. Be sure to evaluate the credibility and appropriateness of any materials you would aggregate and repurpose.
Class discussion questions
- What is the study’s most important finding?
- Would members of the public intuitively understand the study’s findings? If not, what would be the most effective way to relate them?
- What kinds of knowledgeable sources you would interview to report the study in context?
- How could the study be “localized” and shown to have community implications?
- How might the study be explained through the stories of representative individuals? What kinds of people might a reporter feature to make such a story about the study come alive?
- What sorts of stories might be generated out of secondary information or ideas discussed in the study?