This simple tweak could drastically raise our pathetic recycling rates

Telling people what product their trash will turn into makes people more likely to take the time to recycle it.

[Source Image: davidpkfox/Blendswap]

Have you ever thought about what happens to the empty Coke cans and food takeout containers you toss in your recycling bins?

Our research suggests that if you’re like most Americans, you’ve probably never considered this question. This was surprising to us given that, by definition, a recyclable is a product that has future use.

As consumer psychologistswe wondered if emphasizing this transformation in messages promoting recycling would better motivate people to put more of their empty cans, rigid plastic containers, and discarded papers into the blue bins.


U.S. recycling rates are abysmal.

About 75% of American waste is recyclable, yet just 30% of it is actually recycled. The figures are even worse with materials like plastic. Less than 10% of plastics disposed of in the U.S. in 2015 were recycled.

We noticed that most recycling messages tend to emphasize negative environmental outcomes from not recycling, such as “save the planet” and “conserve resources.” The problem with such messaging is that it may be perceived as coercive or induce guilt, which is partly responsible for the growing problem of “aspirational recycling,” or mixing non-recyclables in with your recycling.


So we conducted a series of studies to see if getting people to think about the products made out of recycled material could motivate them to actually recycle more and waste less.

For the first one, we recruited 111 Boston College students to participate in an “advertising study.” We asked participants to doodle on a piece of scratch paper to clear their minds for the survey. We then randomly showed them one of three ads. One was a generic public service message that showed paper going into recycling bins. The other two also depicted the paper either being transformed into new paper or a guitar.

After answering some survey questions about the ad they watched, participants were asked to clear their stations and dispose of the scratch paper on their way out. Those who viewed the generic PSA recycled about half the time. Those who saw the transformational messages were significantly more likely to recycle at a rate of about 80%.

We saw a similar recycling boost in a very similar study in which participants—187 college students—doodled on scrap paper and then either watched ads for toys and phone cases that are made out of recycled plastic or ads emphasizing that the advertised products were made by a company that recycles plastic.

The image depicts the three different types of ads participants in the first study viewed. [Photo: Karen Winterich/Gergana Nenkov/Gabriel E. Gonzales/courtesy of the author]

So for a third study, we wanted to understand more about what’s going on here. Why do transformational messages work better? MORE