Want to increase recycling rates? Put the message where it matters.

Want to increase recycling rates? Put the message where it matters.

Americans need to recycle more AND stop throwing non-recyclable materials in recycling bins. Here’s a way to aim for both goals at once.

You’ve heard us report that Americans are wildly self-congratulatory when it comes to recycling – claiming they always recycle aluminum cans, plastic bottles, newspapers and cardboard, when we know that only about 30% of easy-to-recycle plastics actually get recycled.

In the good news department, Americans are getting a better grasp on reality. Our 2013 Eco Pulse study showed a big drop in the percentage claiming they always recycle cans, bottles, newspapers and cardboard – declining from 64% to 52%. That’s progress!

What we believe they mean by “always recycle” is one of two things:

–        “I always recycle as long as there’s a bin available.”

–        “I throw everything in the bin.”

Meanwhile, companies that manage recycling – Waste Management, Republic and many local haulers – are seeing an increase in contamination of the raw material they’re getting from always recyclers. In other words, stuff that shouldn’t make it into the recycling bin (because it’s not actually recyclable) gets tossed in there anyway. And if it doesn’t get sorted out at the recycling facilities, the resulting bale of plastic being shipped to China for repurposing has a contamination rate that is too high to be usable. Which means that bale could wind up in a landfill … exactly what our always recyclers were trying to avoid.

One of the main contamination culprits? Plastic grocery bags.

Most of us don’t know that they’re not actually recyclable in most curbside programs, so we toss them in the bin, essentially nullifying all our other good recycling deeds by contaminating the stream.

Enter Wegmans. They’re tackling both issues in a stroke of marketing effectiveness.

They’re now printing messaging on the plastic bags asking consumers to “Return to Sender,” AND they’re putting the collection bins for the bags right at the entrance to the store where you must walk past them. I don’t know about you, but the grocery bag return bins at my grocery store are hidden behind the customer service desk – sort of sandwiched between that and one of the express aisles. If you didn’t go looking for it, you wouldn’t find it.

By making the collection bins obvious, you check both the wake-up call (“hey, these actually aren’t recyclable in your curbside program; you need to bring them here”) and convenience boxes we’ve long advised manufacturers they must handle to actually engage Americans in more sustainable behaviors and product purchases.

I’m really excited to see how this program plays out. I’m hoping Wegmans measured the amount of material collected before the effort so they can measure it after the effort and let us all know how it worked. I also hope other retailers will follow their example (for instance, Lowe’s could move their CFL collection bins to the front door).

Presuming the program is as successful as I imagine it will be, manufacturers can use this as a classic case study in increasing sustainable consumer engagement by simply making things obvious and convenient.


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Posted on

February 19, 2014

About the Author

Suzanne Shelton

Where Suzanne sees opportunity, you can bet results will follow. Drawing on her extensive knowledge of both the advertising world and the energy and environment arena, Suzanne provides unparalleled strategic insights to our clients and to audiences around North America. Suzanne is a guest columnist in multiple publications and websites, such as GreenBiz, and she speaks at around 20 conferences a year, including Sustainable Brands, Fortune Brainstorm E and Green Build.

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