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Ideas for Leaders #763

To Inspire Recycling, Describe the Product to Come

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Key Concept

Recycling public service campaigns aimed at consumers — whether launched by governmental and non-profit organizations or companies — will be more effective if they show the new products that can be made from recycled products, rather than simply calling for more recycling. 

Idea Summary

Governments, companies and consumers all generally agree on the importance of recycling for environmental reasons. The challenge is turning awareness into action. Governments and non-governmental organizations are taking steps to encourage consumer recycling through public service announcements and public policy, while companies are attempting to make more of their products from recyclable materials.

Consumers, however, are not increasing their recycling habits. Public service campaigns abound and yet recycling levels remain stagnant. A set of empirical studies points to a potential solution to break through this lack of response from consumers: messages that incorporate the new products that are made from recycled materials. 

The researchers conducted a series of six studies that examined whether showing the new products made from the recycled materials made a difference in the effectiveness of the communication. 

In the first study, for example, participants evaluated one of three public service ads encouraging recycling. One of the ads simply urged: “Please recycle,” with illustrations of the paper, plastic bottles and aluminium cans to be recycled and arrows pointing to recycling bins. In the other two ads, the illustration showed the transformation of the products into new products — either the same product (e.g., bottles became new bottles) or completely new products (e.g., bottles became jackets). In the clever experiment, participants were asked to doodle for a few minutes to ‘clear their minds’. They then evaluated the ads and answered questions on their recycling intentions. Finally, as they were leaving they were asked to toss the doodles into a bin (there was a recycling bin and a trash bin). 

The results of this first study showed that participants were far more likely to throw their doodled paper into the recycling bin (and also expressed higher recycling intent in the survey) if they had seen an ad showing the new products made from the recycled product, whether it was the same product (bottle to bottle) or a different product (bottle to jacket, or paper to guitar, etc.).

The other studies had similar results. The second study looked at an advertisement for a product — cell phone cases — made from recycled products. One ad specified that the cell phone cases were made from recycled bottles, while another ad simply said the cell phone cases were made from recycled materials. The product transformation ads that specified which product (a plastic bottle) had been transformed into the cell phone cases were more successful: the doodles went into the recycling bin, and recycling intent was high.

In other experiments, product transformation content (describing which product would be manufactured from the recycled product) was pitted against general recycling content:

  • In Google ads, in which click-throughs to more information were counted, 
  • In the context of football game tailgating parties, where fans were either told or not told by stadium personnel what new products could come from their recycled cans and plastic bottles. 

Whatever the context, the results were the same: if the product that emerges from the recycling process is explicitly shown — “your plastic bottles will be transformed into jackets” — the recycling rate would be significantly higher than if participants only received the generic “let’s recycle” message.

One of the experiments went further and showed through a survey that the product transformation content inspired consumers to recycle — inspiration consisting of making them more aware of the outcome of the recycling process and thus spurring them to action

Business Application

This study demonstrates that the traditional call-to-action message, such as “Let’s Recycle,” or “Bring Your Bottles,” is less effective than product transformation messaging. Inspiring greater action through such messaging is not only good for the planet but for many companies who want and need recyclables in order to create their products.  Don’t simply ask for the plastic bottle, or simply declare proudly that you use recycled materials. Show the amazing product transformation that is about to take place, from the old product to the sometimes unexpected new product that emerges from the process.

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Idea conceived

  • July 2019

Idea posted

  • February 2020

DOI number



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