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How do College Students Really Feel About Recycling?

Girl holding green recycling bin with plastics insidePeople make a lot of assumptions about today’s youth, college and university students in particular. “Millennials are lazy, entitled and self-absorbed,” an early Time Magazine article screamed. But the truth is far more complex, and the current college crowd continues to defy the stereotypes.  

So, how to college students really feel about recycling?

Well, the good news is that today’s young people have grown up with a sense of global awareness about sustainability and the importance of green living. There are also aspects of their collective behaviors that, properly directed, can turn them into leaders for positive, sustainable change.

The downside is that students still aren’t recycling as much as they should, so we decided to take a look at their overall attitudes to see why this is the case. As it turns out, most of the barriers to recycling for students are much the same as everyone else’s. The 5 key issues inhibiting student recycling are:

1. Go Green! (Now what?)

There is both good and bad news regarding current students’ awareness of sustainability and environmental concerns. A 2015 study for the Journal of Building Construction and Planning Research discovered that 86.4 percent of students surveyed had heard of sustainability, though only 35 percent felt they knew what it really meant. Only about 18 percent of the survey group felt they had a strong understanding of the concept. The study concluded that while media is bombarding today’s students with information about environmental concerns, awareness remains superficial. In other words, they know there’s a problem, but they aren’t really clear what to do about it.

On the other hand, a 2014 study from the University of Iowa determined that 51 percent of students in their dataset recycle “as much as possible,” while only 9 percent said they don’t recycle at all. Among the latter set, the two main reasons cited for not recycling were lack of available space and no available information on how and where to recycle. Taken in tandem, these studies suggest that while awareness and the desire to recycle exist, students need an actionable plan and facilities to help them see programs through.  (For similar studies, see also: NIH, U.Guelph.)

2. Inconvenience

Like the rest of us, students won’t recycle if they can’t find an available recycling bin, if the ones provided are full or if they lack instructional signage.  A 2009 study from the National Institutes of Health found that a lack of available facilities was the number one reason students gave for not recycling regularly, and the same reason ranked number one or two in all of the studies we looked at.

3. Lack of Information

The other top barrier to campus recycling is a lack of reliable, easily accessible information to tell them what goes where. For students, a lack of instruction affects their daily recycling behavior throughout the school year, but it is a particular concern when they are moving in and moving out. Even students with a strong education in recycling best practices might be at a loss when it comes to disposing of furniture shipping containers when they move in or offloading used mattresses and furniture at the end of the year.

4. Time

Let’s face it; no one has enough time these days. Students are juggling school work, newly developed social lives and possibly also a job or two. What differentiates them from the older set is only that these demands on their time are new, which means they might not have developed strategies to stay on schedule.

5. Priorities

Students freshly entering a college or university environment are often overwhelmed by change and unstructured independence, and the idea of recycling can take a backseat. As they mature as students, they might find themselves under increasing pressure to perform well in class or bowing to social pressures to party, which pushes recycling even further down the priority list.

Dealing with Distractions

Finally, the one key differentiator between today’s incoming college students and older generations is digital noise. As social media natives, young people today consider distraction to be normal. Social media, digital apps, online games and quizzes all offer a steady stream of personalized information and activities that students juggle alongside their schoolwork and real world activities. They are also notorious multitaskers to a degree not experienced by their elders.

These digital distractions mean students suffer from an attention issue. When it comes to recycling, this means municipalities and schools have to work harder to cut through the noise and ensure that recycling remains front of mind.


While there isn’t much that municipalities can do to help students find more time or realign their priorities, there is quite a lot that can be done on the education front to help schools make recycling facilities more readily available, and to educate students on their proper use.

Solutions such as the Recycle Coach app help cut through digital distraction and help you communicate with students in familiar technical environment.  Recycle Coach offers a suite of tools that help you deliver information to students in a timely manner, in a language they understand.

For more examples of how today’s college students defy Millennial stereotypes, see: The Nation, World Economic Forum, US News.

For more information about Millennial recycling habits at colleges and how you can target them:


logo-green.png About Recycle Coach: Recycle Coach specializes in digital solutions for municipal and private waste management services to effectively educate and engage residents. Our technology platforms for web, mobile, and digital assistants focus on education and encouragement to help residents to be better recyclers, with the goal of inspiring positive and lasting change in communities around the world. It is our constant innovation and scalability of services that allow us to meet the needs of over 3000 communities across the USA, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and more.  

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