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A Proven and Easy Way to Increase Consumer Recycling

Karen Page Winterich, Gergana Y. Nenkov and Gabriel E. Gonzales

Listen to lead author Karen Page Winterich explain her research.

Around the world, sustainability programs are growing in popularity and scale. They’re driven by movements like the circular economy, corporate and personal values, and good business smarts. Companies are lightweighting packaging, using post-consumer-recycled material in new goods, or working towards a zero-waste goal. These initiatives reduce use of raw materials and optimize processes like logistics and also resonate with consumers. Shoppers buying from sustainable companies like Patagonia, REI, and Madewell develop deep emotional connections with the products and their makers.

However, consumers’ recycling habits have not kept pace with organizations’ needs. While more plastics were produced in 2015 than prior years, plastics recycling fell incrementally from 9.5% in 2014 to 9.1% in 2015. Overall, only 25.8% of waste was recycled in the United States in 2015, with only 13% of municipal solid waste recycled globally. A new study in the Journal of Marketing proposes that promoting product transformation salience— helping consumers think about how recyclables become new products – inspires consumers to help achieve this shared goal and recycle more. Currently, there is very little marketing research on the transformation of recyclable material into new products, and out of 56 recycling campaigns the authors of the study identified, only six featured any reference to transforming recyclables into new products.

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We conducted six separate studies to test this hypothesis.

Key findings include:

  • In the first study, participants were asked to dispose of some scratch paper. Participants who saw a recycling message involving recycled material being transformed into the same product—paper (80.5%), or a different product, a guitar (79.1%)—recycled more than participants who saw a generic recycling message not involving product transformation (50.9%).
  • The second study showed that participants who viewed advertisements for products made from identified recycled plastic items were more likely to recycle (87.7%) than those who viewed advertisements for products that only mention the company engages in recycling practices (71.7%).
  • The third study compared three messages to confirm that transformation salience increases recycling even when no specific product output is identified from the transformation (i.e., simply telling consumers that recycling gives recyclables a new life). The research team found that transformation messaging increases recycling by inspiring people to recycle—in other words, getting people to think about the possibilities from transformation is the key to increased recycling rates.

The final three studies were conducted in the field. In the first study, a Google Ads campaign for a jeans recycling program generated a click-through rate of 0.26% for a product transformation recycling advertisement versus 0.18% for a recycling advertisement not emphasizing product transformation. In the next study, conducted before a university football game, tailgating fans recycled 58.1% of their waste after being told what products could be made from recyclables, whereas those receiving a traditional recycling message about what could be recycled only recycled 19% of their waste. Finally, the team did an audit of two university residence hall waste collection stations. On the product transformation salience floor, when the signage included products made from recyclables, 51.5% of the material headed to the landfill could have been recycled, whereas 62.9% of the material in the control floor’s landfill bin was recyclable, suggesting that the transformation message led students to place more of their recyclable material in recycling bins instead of the landfill bin.

This research has important implications for companies and organizations seeking to increase recycling rates. These studies provide compelling evidence that when consumers consider that recyclables are transformed into something new, they recycle more. Therefore, increasing transformation salience among consumers should be a priority for any organization seeking to increase collection rates. Results from this study also provide insights into how companies can use product transformation messages to increase consumer recycling – they show that when advertisements for products made from recycled materials make transformation salient, recycling increases. Increased recycling offers not only societal and environmental benefits, but also provides the source materials companies need for sustainable production of goods in a circular economy. The recycling conversation needs to change from “Where does this go?” to “What can this make?” so consumers are inspired to recycle to make new products.

Read the full article.
View the May 16, 2019 Media Release

From: Karen Page Winterich, Gergana Y. Nenkov, and Gabriel E. Gonzales, “Knowing What It Makes: How Product Transformation Salience Increases Recycling,” Journal of Marketing, 87 (July).

Go to the Journal of Marketing

Karen Page Winterich is Professor of Marketing and Frank and Mary Smeal Research Fellow, Smeal College of Business, Pennsylvania State University.

Gergana Y. Nenkov is Associate Professor of Marketing and Haub Family Faculty Fellow, Carroll School of Management, Boston College.

Gabriel E. Gonzales is a doctoral candidate in Marketing, Smeal College of Business, Pennsylvania State University.