Americans’ views on plastics, recycling, and sustainability

In partnership with Wakefield Research, we commissioned a first-of-its-kind public opinion survey of American adults to obtain valuable insights into consumers' comprehension of the plastics and recycling industries, and the results were nothing short of remarkable.

At Protein Evolution, we are dedicated to transforming the way plastic waste is managed and how new plastic material is produced. In the pursuit of this goal, we realized that there is a significant lack of knowledge among the general public regarding the fundamental workings of the plastics industry, the sources of raw materials for new plastic production, and the extent to which plastic is present in various materials.

It is also concerning that despite decades of sorting plastic bottles, cardboard boxes, and other everyday items from household waste, most households are unaware of the intricacies of recycling and the substantial quantities of plastic present in their daily lives - far more than what they dispose of in the recycling bin.

To address this issue, we partnered with Wakefield Research to conduct a groundbreaking public opinion survey of American adults. The aim was to obtain valuable insights into consumers' comprehension of the plastics and recycling industries, and the results were nothing short of remarkable.

Key Findings

Our survey found that nearly 7 in 10 Americans (69%) are not aware that crude oil is used to produce new plastic, and the majority of Americans are unaware that plastic is in our clothes. The fact is that traditional methods used to create virgin plastic or textile goods rely on fossil fuels as feedstock. The existing plastic production process is extremely energy intensive and can result in problematic contaminants for the environment.

However, most Americans still believe plastic waste is a major concern. 71% are very or extremely concerned about the amount of plastic waste that ends up in landfills or incinerators each year, and nearly all Americans (93%) overestimate the percentage of plastic products that are recycled and reused each year. This is important because plastic and textile waste contribute significant methane emissions due to landfilling and incineration in the United States. The textile industry, in particular, is adding 11.3 million tons of waste to landfills annually. Today, the industry lacks commercially sufficient technologies to recycle end-of-life textiles into new products. As a result, the Ellen MacArthur Foundation estimates that 10 percent of global emissions are related to the textile industry.

Additionally, the vast majority of Americans overestimate the extent to which this problem has a solution today. 98% of Americans overestimate the actual amount of discarded textiles that are recycled. And while the most popular ways to repurpose clothing and apparel include donating to a charity or thrift shop (83%) and giving it away to friends or family (42%), just 25% find a way to actually recycle them.

Recycling unused clothing is crucial for reducing plastic waste, but neither municipalities nor manufacturers are making it easy to do so. Among those who recycle unused clothing, 76% have put it in the drop off clothing bin at a recycling center that accepts textiles. Fewer than half (47%) put it in a curbside container, and just 33% mail it to a company that recycles it.

Impact on Brands

Our survey shows that there is clear demand for a solution. Consumers are willing to pay more for clothing made from recycled polyester, and there is a desire for companies to be held accountable for sustainability.

Consumers are demanding that businesses make a dent in the amount of plastic that gets wasted every year, starting with the materials they use in the first place. More than 3 in 4 (76%) believe it is very or extremely important that companies increase the amount of recycled materials they use to make clothing and apparel, including 82% of parents.

Americans also love clothing made with recycled materials. 88% of those surveyed are at least somewhat likely to choose recycled clothing over new. It’s also worth noting that the quality of recycled clothing is perceived to be high. 86% believe clothing that was made from recycled materials is just as, or even more, durable as clothes made from virgin materials.

We learned that consumers recognize the effort manufacturers have to put in to reduce plastic waste, and they’re willing to pay for it. Nearly 2 in 3 (66%) would be willing to pay more for clothes made from recycled polyester, including 40% who would pay $20+ more.

Overall, 89% of Americans believe that when it comes to reducing plastic waste, everyone has a role to play, including individuals—but perceptions may be changing. A quarter of Gen Z (25%) say individual actions don’t matter compared to the impact of large companies in reducing plastic waste.

Manufacturers and brands will need to keep this shift in mind as Gen Z’s purchasing power increases. An impressive 83% of Gen Z would spend more on recyclable apparel, as would 79% of Millennials. Just 62% of Gen X—and even fewer Boomers (51%)—say the same.

Why This Matters to Us

The future of textile recycling will rely on true circularity at both the start and end of a product’s lifecycle. This is made possible through biological recycling. Biological recycling utilizes enzymes to reduce the burden of the expensive waste sorting process, which is a current bottleneck in recycling and one of the main drivers of rising costs across the industry today.

By being able to address hard-to-recycle textiles at the end-of-life, while providing brands with a high-quality recycled material, Protein Evolution has the potential to deliver the first true, circular solution to the fashion industry, without asking consumers to compromise on cost.

We know through market research, including this first-of-its-kind public opinion survey, that consumers care deeply about sustainability in the fashion industry, but they still lack the knowledge about the true impact of plastic and textile waste. We have an opportunity to change that.

For more insights, download the full report here or join the conversation on LinkedIn and Twitter.


Survey Methodology

The survey was conducted by Wakefield Research among 1,000 nationally representative US adults ages 18+, between April 11th and April 17th, 2023, using an email invitation and an online survey. Data was weighted to ensure an accurate representation of nationally representative US adults ages 18+. Results of any sample to sampling variation. The magnitude of the variation is measurable and is affected by the number of interviews and the level of the percentages expressing the results. For the interviews conducted in this particular study, the chances are 95 in 100 that a survey result does not vary, pulse or minus, by more than 3,1 percentage points from the result that would be obtained if interviews had been conducted with all persons in the universe represented by the sample.