Getting People to Recycle: Research Interventions That Make a Difference

We all know that we must get a grip on consumption and waste or we will soon be drowning in our own mess. Recycling programs abound, but people are often lackadaisical about putting plastic, paper, glass, and metal into those bins. How can we get more people to recycle? An interesting intervention recently conducted in Canada is pointing the way, and the message is all about...well, the messaging.

At The Science of Getting People to Do Good briefing, held on March 30 at the Stanford Graduate School of Business, marketing professor Kate White of the University of British Columbia shared studies done in Calgary showing that communication that cognitively makes sense to people makes it easier for them to understand how to recycle - and therefore more likely to do it.

The research looks at two kinds of messages: those that highlight the negative consequences of not recycling (loss frames) versus those that emphasize the positive consequences of recycling (gain frames). In other words, which works better in getting people to opt for the blue bin rather than the garbage can: the idea that failing to recycle will cause tons of pollution or the idea that successfully recycling will save tons of pollution?

It turns out that depends on whether you want people to focus on concrete thinking - details like how to clean your bottles and when to put the carts out, or abstract thinking - ideas about why recycling is important.

Researchers prepared different door hangers about recycling - some with loss and some with gain-framed messages. On the reverse side of some of each, they listed concrete steps for how to recycle, including specifics about the type of items and the time and place to put the material for pickup. On the reverse side of others, they asked people to think more abstractly about why recycling contributed to the community, air, land, and water resources. 

Monitoring actual quantities of material recycled, researchers found that urgent, negative information (loss–framed messages) worked best to get people to recycle when paired with concrete instructions for recycling. “Feel good” information (gain-framed messages) about what recycling  accomplishes also worked when it was matched with statements about why recycling is important more generally. 

In other words, they found that if you're going to keep giving people bad news in order to motivate them, it's best to offer them concrete steps about “what to do.” Otherwise, focus on good news and pair it with the broader philosophy of why the action is important. Such a cognitive match helps people “get” it and act. Least effective is matching negative data with the philosophical “why” of the effort, or pairing positive data with concrete steps. This pairing doesn’t resonate as well in people’s brains. The lessons should be applicable to any cause-based effort, said White. 

For all the resource-starved nonprofits out there focused on marketing campaigns, we hope you will find some direction from this research before investing the dollars.



Professor Frank Flynn at the Stanford Graduate School of Business hosted the briefing, which also focused on issues such as how to close the achievement gap in schools with just simple self-esteem building interventions, how to encourage people to vote, and how to get people to lose weight and thereby improve their health.

Read more about Professor Kate White and download her paper.


Where is the paper for this

Where is the paper for this research?


SPOT ON!!!!! Thanks

Thank you!

This post was awesome and extremely informative. Thanks for sharing this great work!

Great Post

Thanks for the post; great information.

Easy to understand = Easy to do

Super post. Thx for sharing this.

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