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How to Get People to Recycle: Show Them the Results

Giving consumers an idea of what a can or glass might be transformed into makes them far more likely to recycle it, according to new research.
Recycling bins trash waste compost

New research offers evidence that people are much more likely to recycle if they are offered a vision of what their old bottles, cans, and magazines could be turned into.

Even as more and more people express alarm about climate change, rates of recycling—the one simple, Earth-friendly act that virtually everyone can engage in—have been frustratingly stagnant.

But new research indicates a promising approach to increase recycling participation. It offers evidence that people are much more likely to recycle if they are offered a vision of what their old bottles, cans, and magazines could be turned into.

"By bringing consumers' attention to the transformation of recyclables into new products, the conversation shifts from 'Where does this go?' to 'What can this make?'" writes a research team led by Karen Page Winterich of Pennsylvania State University. That mental image of a future product can apparently inspire people to change their behavior.

In the Journal of Marketing, the researchers describe six studies that support these findings. The first featured 111 Boston College undergraduates who "began the study session by taking one minute to do some doodling and drawing with paper and crayons," ostensibly to "clear their minds before starting the survey."

They were then asked to evaluate an advertisement about recycling. One-third of them saw an ad that simply showed items being placed into recycling bins. Another third saw a version in which the old products went into a recycling bin, and "new products of the same type" emerged from the other side. The final third saw an image of old products being transformed through the recycling process into entirely different consumer goods.

After the participants indicated their views on the ad's effectiveness, the lab assistant in charge thanked the participants and asked them, as they exited the room, to dispose of the paper they had been doodling on. Among those who'd seen the first ad, 50 percent did so using the recycling bin, while the other half simply threw the paper in a trash can.

But among those who had seen images of the items getting transformed, 79 to 80 percent placed their paper in the recycling bin.

That same pattern was found in a series of follow-up studies, the most interesting of which featured football fans engaging in pre-game tailgating at Penn State. The researchers partnered with the university's recycling initiative, which employs students to inform visitors how best to dispose of their waste.

For this experiment, half of those student liaisons gave their usual talk, telling visitors that plastic bottles and aluminum cans should go into the blue recycling bags and everything else should be placed in clear landfill bags.

The other half provided the same information, but, using visual aids, they also "informed tail-gaiters about the transformation of each type of recyclable into a new product." Examples they gave included: "Cans are used to make new scissors, or even bicycles," and: "Recycled plastic bottles can be transformed into jackets."

After the game, the researchers weighed the amount of waste, and the amount of recycling, left behind by each car. They found that fans who'd heard the bare-bones message recycled only 19 percent of their trash. But those who experienced the longer, illustrated talk about the sorts of products that could be made from their discarded goods recycled a full 58 percent of their waste material.

"Providing information on the transformation of recyclables into new products is rare," Winterich and her colleagues note. "Our research provides compelling evidence that providing messages with product transformation information inspires consumers to participate in recycling programs."

Think about it. Recycling as an abstract concept? Meh. Imagining that La Croix can be transformed into the handlebar of a racing bike? Very cool.