We all want sustainability. Nevertheless, in everyday life, basic practical steps can sometimes present challenges when it comes to recycling. Studies by researchers from Pennsylvania State University and Boston College have ascertained that effective communication of information can be the key factor. If consumers know what products can be produced from their waste, they are more likely to recycle it.

PET waste, such as plastic bottles, can be used to create new jackets or sportswear, and aluminium cans can be used to manufacture bicycles.Studies suggest that the rate of recycling improves when consumers are informed about the new products that are made from recycled materials through signage and campaigns promoting a message.

Karen Page Winterich, Professor of Marketing at The Smeal College of Business at Pennsylvania State University (Penn State), and her colleagues have conducted a series of studies. They investigated how the special nature of product transformation, i.e. the notion that recyclable materials can be transformed into new products, affects recycling behaviour. The results of these studies were published in the Journal of Marketing in July 2019. Besides Karen Page Winterich, other contributors to the article include Gergana Nenkov, Marketing Professor at the Carroll School of Management at Boston College, and Gabriel Gonzales, Marketing PhD student at Penn State.

Participants in the study were given different information

In one study, the research team gave participants a sheet of used scrap paper to scribble on, and told them they could use it to “order their thoughts”. Next, the researchers showed the participants a series of advertisements. Some of the advertisements merely encouraged recycling. Others showed products that are recycled to create the same type of product, for example a plastic bottle which is made into a new plastic bottle.

Other advertisements presented information about recyclable materials which are transformed into completely different products, for example a plastic bottle which can be used to create a jacket. At the end of the session, the researchers assessed whether the participants threw their sheets of paper into the recycling bin or into the rubbish bin before leaving the room.

© Karen Winterich, Penn State

Knowledge promotes sustainable behaviour

Scientists found that the research participants who had seen ads giving details about how products are converted were more likely to recycle their sheets of scrap paper. This was in contrast to the behaviour of participants who were only shown a general recycling message which did not communicate detailed information about product conversions.

Interestingly, according to the researchers, there was no difference in behaviour between the participants who were given specific information about products being converted into completely different product types, and those who were informed about the products that are recycled to create the same type of product.

Put to the test in everyday life – inspiring responsible behaviour

In another study, the research team placed a sign above the designated waste and recycling area in a student dormitory. It simply indicated what kinds of recyclable materials were accepted. On another floor of the same student dorm building, signs were placed showing the kinds of products which could be made from the recyclable materials. The researchers sorted and weighed the contents of the containers for a specified period.

In the test area which had more detailed information about the materials to be recycled, it was determined that a smaller quantity of recyclable materials was disposed of in the general waste, and an increased quantity in the recycling containers.

Our research suggests that a simple way to increase recycling is to expose consumers to information about the transformation of recyclables into new products, as doing so will inspire them to recycle.

Karen Winterich, Professor of Marketing and Frank and Mary Smeal Research Fellow at the Penn State Smeal College of Business

Higher click-through rates for informative online advertising

Finally, the research team conducted a comparative study on the impact of online advertising containing information on product transformation and online advertising which does not contain this information. The click-through rates were assessed. The researchers made use of an initiative by the clothing company Madewell, which was carrying out a blue jeans recycling campaign at that point in time. Customers were asked to recycle their jeans so that they could be processed into housing insulation material.

Winterich and her colleagues published various paid ads on Google to see if consumers were more likely to click on ads that contained detailed information about how the recycled materials are used, compared with those that didn’t. The team’s analysis showed that the click-through rates were higher for the more informative ads than for the control ad.

Accordingly, the results of the present study provide incentives for companies to communicate clear messages and specific information about product transformation, to promote recycling and to anchor sustainability in the minds of consumers and to link this back to their own brands.


An article by ndion.

Additional links:
To the study in the Marketing Journal
Pennsylvania State University Website

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