Recycling the South

Recycle ManHere in Athens, our city-county commissioners recently pushed through single-stream recycling. In other words, folks no longer have to sort stuff into bins for pickup. With recycling on my mind, I wrote about it recently in my local daily newspaper and I’ll revisit aspects of that column below. Here, though, I want to focus on the South and whether we (the royal we, as in those lucky enough to live in the South) recycle as much as the rest of the country.

Being a numbers geek, I of course went to the data.

In this case I used a national survey (go here for raw questions and results) that included, for some odd reason, recycling behaviors. To me, the most likely explanation of whether one recycles is the place you live. My mom, for example, lives in my hometown of Lawrenceburg, TN, a small place where there’s no driveway pickup of recyclables. She recycles, but not a lot, because she’s got to sort it and load it in her aging Taurus and deliver it to a nearby center. So you’d expect people who live in smaller communities to report less recycling because doing so is not so simple or easy.

The survey lets us examine this in a rough way as it divides communities into four sizes: the largest 25 counties in terms of population, those over 150,000 (but not in top 25), those 35,000 to 150,000, and then a fourth catch-all category that includes my Lawrence County, Tenn.

The result? Not good for the South.

Check out the table below (paper recycling only). Simply put — size matters. As the population size of one’s county increases, so does the likelihood of people saying they recycle. It’s not perfect, but the trend is obvious as we move from left-to-right, from smaller to larger counties.

Percent who Recycle Paper

Population Size of County Live In
Under 35K 35-50K 50-150K Largest 25
Northeast 58.8 73.7 83.3 70.7
Midwest 51.0 74.5 74.2 71.8
West 50.0 68.6 69.9 81.0
South 39.4 45.9 58.1 60.8

Let’s look at the smallest counties first. In the South, only 39.4 percent of those who live in these counties report recycling paper. Then look at the other U.S. regions in the same column. About half say they recycle paper. While recycling in the South increases as community size increases, it never really closes the gap between the South and those other, less fortunate, regions of the U.S.

For plastic it’s even worse. About 35 percent who live in smaller southern counties say they recycle plastic. Elsewhere, it ranges from 53.1 to 64.7 percent. Ouch.

The Northeast outperforms the rest of the country in the smaller counties. The West does a better job in the larger cities. The South? I suppose we love our landfills and feel the need to constantly feed them. There are a lot of potential explanations for this. Perhaps counties across the South, regardless of size, simply don’t make it as easy to recycle as similar-sized counties elsewhere. Maybe it’s a function of poverty. Or maybe we prefer to put our recyclables up on cinder blocks in the front yard for our neighbors to admire.

Or it may be – I’m sorry to raise this – about race.

I didn’t expect this, but when I constructed a model to predict recycling I tossed in all the usual suspects – age, education, income, sex, and yes … race. I also included such factors as whether you own your own home, whether you live in a house versus an apartment or mobile home, and a whole bunch of other stuff, some of which you can find discussed in the link above to my newspaper column. Even with all those factors statistically controlled for, African-Americans were still significantly less likely to report recycling. It’s a powerful relationship and one I can’t easily explain. It may be cultural, or it may be simply access to good recycling programs. I honestly don’t know.

On the good news side, if you include all these other factors, living in the South doesn’t play as much a role in whether or not you recycle. It’s still there, sorry to say, but not as pronounced.

Finally, to my column mentioned above. In it, I opened by asking whether recycling was a function of being liberal versus conservative. Tree-hugging liberals, I assumed, would out-recycle those tree-killing conservatives. Nope. Liberals and conservatives report recycling at the same level. You can skim the results in my column, but I doubt many will surprise, such as the role of owning a house or education (both positive predictors, along with a lot of other stuff).

The column’s main question, though, was whether recycling was like voting, a political act, or more like being involved in your community. Through the magic of multivariate analysis I concluded it’s more like being involved in your community. I’m not sure how this speaks to the South’s dismal record of recycling, maybe it doesn’t at all, but it does say something about people in general and how recycling is connected to community involvement. That’s a good starting point.




Barry Hollander

Barry Hollander

Former hack at daily newspapers, now hack journalism professor at the University of Georgia, number cruncher and longtime Net user, caffeine addict, writer of weird fiction, and a semi-retired god in an online fantasy world where godhood suits him quite well, thank you very much. He also blogs at