Recycling Rates Improve When People Know What Items Will Become

Several consumer psychologists designed a study around these questions, in an effort to determine whether or not explaining to people what their recyclables are transformed into would help boost recycling rates.

Recycling rates are abysmal in the United States. An estimated 75% of U.S. packaging is recyclable, but only 30% actually gets put in the right place. (Of that, even less gets recycled, due to contamination, incorrect placement, low resale value, and, of course, limited facilities.)

Researchers from Pennsylvania State University, Boston College, and State University of New York got together to conduct some interesting experiments. They wanted 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.”

Tehy recruited 111 Boston College students to participate in an “advertising study” and asked participants to doodle on a piece of scratch paper to clear their minds for the survey. 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 completing a survey, the students were asked to dispose of the scrap paper when they left. Half of those who watched the general PSA recycled their papers, while the recycling rate jumped to 80% for those who’d seen the transformational ads. After doing a few more lab experiments, the researchers headed into the real world.

They created an ad campaign to see how consumers responded to the different types of messages, and published paid Google search ads to appear whenever users typed prespecified keywords, such as “womens blue jeans” and “blue denim.”

The ads either urged people to recycle their old jeans in order to transform them into housing insulation or simply encouraged people to recycle them. We found that people were significantly more likely to click on the ad when the transformed product was mentioned.

Research shows it can make a big difference. We can conclude from all this that people want to know what treasures their trash can become, and when that’s laid out clearly, they’re more inclined to do it. Perhaps municipalities and recycling companies should redesign signs to depict the items being created.

The more material available to retailers and the greater the demand for recycled goods, the more innovation there is likely to be.

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