Today, recycling may seem like a no-brainer for many, but recent survey results find that recycling at home is something that less than half of U.S. households reportedly do on a regular basis.

CivicScience tracking indicates that regular recycling among U.S. adults has generally been on a decline over the past year or so, and today, just 43% of respondents say they recycle at ‘every chance I get’. A larger percentage (56%) recycle when they feel it’s convenient, on occasion, or never (n=3,187).

Looking into ‘the who’ behind the current recycling trends, results are stunning. Adults under age 35 are nearly half as likely to recycle on a regular basis (‘every chance I get’) as adults over age 35.

Millennials (ages 25-34) are overall the least into recycling – a solid half of this age group is split between only recycling on occasion but not often or simply not at all.

Further data reveal the extent to which age is such a critical factor underlying recycling habits. Here are two key insights:

For one, recycling is more about age than politics. While people who typically identify as Democrats are more likely to recycle on the regular than Republicans or Moderates (a difference of 3-5 percentage points), the differences are not as stark as between U.S. adults under age 35 and those above it (an average difference of 23.5 percentage points).

Two, young people are less concerned about climate change and the environment. Despite Greta Thunberg’s high-profile speeches and stories of Gen Z climate activism circulating in the press, recent survey data clearly show that at least in the United States today, adults under age 35 are less likely to express as high a level of concern about climate change and the environment as older adults. Just 27% of Gen Z and Millennial respondents say they are ‘very concerned’ about climate change and the environment, compared to 35% of Gen X and 47% of Baby Boomer respondents. Results also show that people with less environmental concern have a lower likelihood to recycle.

Breaking It Down

What’s behind lackluster recycling habits and environmental concern among younger generations? Past CivicScience data show that overall concern for climate change and the environment has been trending downward over the past year, despite an increasing number of Americans noticing climate change effects in their areas. 

One theory is that pernicious inflation has edged out other concerns for affected people. Younger adults – who typically earn less – may be more burdened financially during a time of high inflation, causing recycling and environmental concern to lose priority amid a slew of money-related concerns.

Survey results show that lower income earners (a proxy for young adults) are indeed less likely to regularly recycle and more likely to never recycle. These income bucket differences are only amplified among adults aged 18-34. Data clearly show that higher income earners making $100K+ per year are significantly more likely to recycle regularly, compared to one-quarter or less of households earning $100K or less.

Age and age-based income (and most likely personal financial situation) clearly correlate with the likelihood to recycle, with an even stronger bent than party politics. However, other factors should also be considered when trying to understand what’s keeping younger adults from recycling more these days. Stay tuned for additional insights as CivicScience digs further into this topic.