Press Release /

Availability is the Most Important Factor for Motivating Consumers to Recycle, Research Reveals

DENTON, Texas, April 5, 2023 – While recycling is a critical part of our circular economy to ensure there is feedstock to manufacture new products, getting consumers to recycle remains an ongoing challenge. The Carton Council commisioned a study that looks at the behavior science behind recycling to better understand how people make decisions and what behavior changes could be made to improve recycling. Recognizing that food and beverage cartons are only one material in the recycling stream, the findings are relevant to anyone interested in improving recycling in general.

The study reveals that the number one influence for recycling is availability and convenience, and the key is ensuring recycling decisions are easy to make. Having recycling bins available near the point of consumption, the size of the recycling bin and the amount of effort it takes to recycle, all impact how much, and if, consumers recycle. Removing obstacles and reminding consumers that recycling is not complicated, that it is just as easy to throw something in the recycling bin as it is in the trash, is key to influencing their behavior.

“Understanding the obstacles to recycling and ensuring our programs and outreach efforts are mindful of them is crucial,” said Larine Urbina, vice president of communications for the Carton Council. “First and foremost, it needs to be easy for consumers to recycle. Location, space, and convenience strongly shape the distance between intention and action making recycling easy, versus complicated and confusing.”

The second most common factor is recognizing that people are influenced by societal expectations, largely as a result of the intrinsic need to belong and feel accepted to a group. Social norms play a huge role in determining behavior, which is consistent with new research released in March that looks at what is effective in making people take action on the climate. While that research was much broader and did not specifically address recycling, the findings are consistent: Simply telling people what is good or bad for the planet isn’t enough to get them to adopt a new behavior. Instead, what other people are doing around them can be very influential.

“This reinforces the importance of fostering a sense that everyone recycles,” said Urbina. “For those trying to improve resident recycling, consider creating opportunities for friendly competition among neighborhoods and ways to show recycling as a positive social norm. In poorly participating areas, consider recruiting trendsetter recyclers to set the example.”

Another activity that can help improve recycling behavior, according to the Carton Council commissioned research, is reminding people. Prompts and cues at the point of decision making, like fridge magnets or stickers on recycling carts, can help catch attention, leading to a better chance of a package being recycled. On-pack recycling information, including a logo or other messaging, is also important as it is often the first place to prompt consumers to recycle.

The study also reveals that how consumers feel about a product, including its perceived and future value, can shape their decision to recycle it. Knowledge of what recycled products can be transformed into drives the likelihood of a package being recycled. Additionally, consumers often place a false value on a package based on how physically tangible it is. Dented or deformed packages are more likely to be thrown away as their perceived value is lower – even though those packages are equally recyclable.

“There’s an opportunity to highlight the value behind paper, and that cartons in particular contain some of the highest quality fiber in the recycling stream. The key is to spotlight the value of recycling a package and better convey the eventual outcomes of recycling it,” said Urbina. “For cartons, this means showcasing the new products recycled cartons are transformed into and that paper has an important role in the recycling value chain and circular economy.”

Made mostly of paper, a plant-based, renewable resource, cartons are recycled to make new paper products and to produce sustainable building materials. The infrastructure for carton recycling has grown considerably in the U.S., with more than 78.6 million U.S. households—or 62%—able to recycle their cartons. More information about the behavior science findings can be found here.

The Carton Council is composed of four leading carton manufacturers, Elopak, Pactiv Evergreen, SIG and Tetra Pak. Formed in 2009, the Carton Council works to deliver long-term collaborative solutions in order to divert valuable cartons from the landfill. Through a united effort, the Carton Council is committed to building a sustainable infrastructure for carton recycling nationwide and works toward their continual goal of adding access to carton recycling throughout the U.S.

Food and beverage cartons are highly recyclable materials that come in two kinds: refrigerated cartons that store, milk, juice, and egg substitutes; and shelf-stable cartons that are packaged for broths, milks, juices, soups and even wine. When sorted by themselves at materials recovery facilities (MRFs), cartons are a valuable material in high demand. Made mostly from paper, a renewable resource, cartons have become popular containers for food and beverage products as they are lightweight and compact, with a low carbon footprint. When recycled, they are used to make office and writing paper, tissues, paper towels, and even sustainable building and construction materials.