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BLOG: What Helps People Better Understand Recycling Instructions?

Know What to Throw

When educating around what goes in – or doesn’t go in a recycling cart – messaging space is limited and attention spans are short. The Recycling Partnership recently set out to identify best practices for signage and mailers. We surveyed 1,173 people and interviewed 20 people across the country to get our questions answered. Here are our top findings:

1. People want details on what they should and shouldn’t recycle.

As we have seen in our other surveys, people are overly confident about recycling in general. They think they are recycling properly, but surveys (and contamination rates) confirm their knowledge is often wrong.

Case in point, 49% of those surveyed believed plastic grocery bags should go in household recycling. Even the people who rate their own behavior 10 out of 10 believe plastic grocery bags should go in their household recycling.  40% of those “top recyclers” also believe Styrofoam™ should go in their household recycling.

When shown a well-organized mailer displaying clear dos and don’ts of recycling like The Recycling Partnership’s infocard (as seen in Campaign Builder) and asked whether or not a material should go in recycling, people readily found the answer. Several people who were individually interviewed actually breathed an audible sigh of relief when they saw The Recycling Partnership’s infocard after viewing a number of others because it was organized, easy to read, and with recognizable objects.

PRO TIP: The trick is to provide the level of detail people need while keeping the visuals and text clean and organized. Ready to educate residents?  Has your contract changed? Have you reconfirmed top issues with your MRF?


2. People are looking for the right level of detail at the right times.

When it comes to recycling instructions, convenience is king. People need information easily and regularly at their fingertips. The challenge is to provide the right information at the right level of detail at the right location.

We tested signs with 20-25 points of information (items we want people to recognize) against those with 45-50 points of information. The signage with 20-25 points of information resulted in more accurate responses, and fewer complaints.

When we started reviewing signs with more points of information people would say things similar to this respondent: “That’s a lot to take in, like to put on a recycling bin. You’d definitely have to be standing there for quite a while to decide what to do.” Others remarked that they wouldn’t stand in the rain to study it. Details need to be posted inside. Most people said their point of decision about recycling is in the kitchen, rather than at the recycling cart or dumpster.

Do you need to show people every possibility? When you show a plastic water bottle, do they understand that plastic soda bottles can be recycled as well? Yes – in general they did because they both fell within an easily understood category. But when you show a yogurt cup, they don’t necessarily understand that a butter tub could also be recycled.

PRO TIP: Give everyone the general yes and no information at least once a year and follow up with information to support top issues that show up as most common contaminants (two top issues at most).

Make it convenient by having a postcard they can put on their fridge, or a magnet, or a sticker for their cart, or a flyer that can be printed and put on a household bin. And don’t forget to update your website with the same information.


3. Group items into recognizable categories and don’t give too many instructions in one place to make your information more digestible. Many respondents commented about eye-catching design, but while color is appreciated, nearly all people demonstrated that organization and recognition of items was key. Even though most respondents were interested in learning all they could about recycling, many were not able to correctly apply instructions if there were too many details to sort through. But when items were grouped in logical categories, the accuracy of the information people understood went up.

PRO TIP: Organize by recognizable category and don’t give too many “no” or “yes” items within each category.

Respondents to our survey appreciated being led through the information in a predictable and organized way. They want information in their kitchen and want to receive information often to keep it in their mind.

Other key findings included:

  • People prefer “no hoses, cords or wires” – over “no tanglers” and “plastics bags and wrap” over other options
  • Pair images with words – don’t use just images or just words
  • Materials with branding, even if it’s generic, made items they should recycle more recognizable

Ready to update members of your community on what is and isn’t recyclable?  Use our free resources like Campaign Builder and DIYSigns. We offer free, professional, easy-to-use online software for mailers, signs, design files, or image libraries.