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Companies are failing to do this one simple thing that could boost recycling

Most consumers want to recycle, but aren’t always sure how. Brands can make it much easier.

Companies are failing to do this one simple thing that could boost recycling
[Illustration: courtesy Smart Design]
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You’ve got an empty plastic bottle—so what do you do with it? Recycle it, obviously. But how? Do you rinse it out first? Remove the cap? Does it need to be separated from other recyclables? From other plastics? If you’re confused, you’re not alone: In a 2020 survey, Smart Design found that 43% of consumers who responded thought the cap should stay on, while 48% thought it should be removed.

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This is typical of today’s recycling landscape. Despite innovations that have made recycling easier and more efficient, the average consumer is still in the dark about what to do. Environmental messaging has focused on raising awareness of pressing issues, and it’s largely succeeded in making people care—but this often fails to translate into action.

If we want to make a dent in the global garbage problem, and environmental degradation in general, this needs to change. There’s a gap between technology and people’s habits, and it’s a huge obstacle to more sustainable behavior.

Fortunately, the brands that put all that potential trash into the world are also perfectly positioned to close the understanding gap.

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First and foremost, there’s an imperative to redesign packaging in a way that makes recycling the easiest, most obvious next step, without expecting consumers to become experts on their local regulations. For the plastic bottle mentioned above, it’s actually best to toss the whole bottle in the bin, cap and all. So why not simply redesign the cap so that it’s attached? This is already a feature of some single-serving water bottles, and on its way to becoming mandatory in the European Union, so it’s clearly possible.

Cardboard packaging could also be redesigned to better accommodate recycling, by collapsing flat in an obvious way, with no cutting. Perhaps it includes a prominent tab that does the job with a single tug. This would make the used packaging easier to stack, while offering a tangible reminder of what to do with it after use.

There’s even more opportunity when it comes to messaging. After all, any successful brand already has plenty of experience communicating with consumers to get them excited about buying their product. Imagine if they applied some of that magic to clarifying correct recycling technique on the product itself. Many brands already include recycling instructions on their packaging, but these are subordinate to branding messages, and often go unnoticed.

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Emphasizing recycling instructions doesn’t have to detract from a brand, though, and it doesn’t need to be permanent. What if your favorite soft drink replaced its iconic logo—just for a month—with clear recycling instructions, front and center? It would almost certainly keep millions of bottles and cans out of the landfill, while establishing the brand’s environmental credibility in a bold, uncynical way that’s likely to earn a lot of fans.

Remember, most consumers really do care about the environment, and increasingly expect brands to care too—even if it costs a bit more. Helping them to achieve their goals, through design and messaging, is the best way to communicate that you’re all on the same team.

Charlie Paradise is a project director and sustainability practice lead at Smart Design; Jamie Munger is a strategy director at Smart Design.