Talking Trash: Waste Blog

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October 8th, 2021

Over the past week, I have been reviewing survey data on household attitudes and behaviors with respect to packaging waste that the university has collected over the past three years. I have written at length about many of our findings, i.e. consumers preference for recycling over reduction and reuse, attitudes towards single use and plastic packaging, the value action gap as it pertains to sustainable purchasing choices etc.

However, as I looked through a seemingly endless log of spreadsheets and likert scales, I observed something that I had not previously noticed (or at least not in this specific context) – consumer perception of environmental impact is significantly influenced by both the words /phrasing that we use and how we choose to describe a particular product or activity. This is particularly true of terms that reference plastics (or plastic packaging)

Figure 1 below shows how survey respondents perceive the environmental impact (good, neutral, bad, unsure) of single use packaging:

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Generally speaking, households associate the terms single use and excess packaging as being “bad” for the environment. While this isn’t a surprising outcome, what is worth noting is that adding the word “plastic” to single use and excess packaging resulted in a marked increase in perception of environmental harm. There was a 20.6% increase in respondents who indicated that single use plastic packaging was bad for the environment, when compared to single use packaging alone. This result was even more pronounced for excess packaging vs. excess plastic packaging, which saw a 50.5% increase in respondents who characterized excess plastic packaging as “bad”.

A similar results was observed for compostable packaging (Shown in Figure 2) – where the addition of the word plastics resulting in a whopping 557% increase in the number of respondents who indicated compostable plastics were bad for the environment (when compared to compostable packaging alone). Note: Compostable packaging was seen significantly less favorably when compared to the term composting alone.

Fig.2

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While the exact cause of this change in consumer perception cannot specifically be isolated, it would appear that consumers have been inundated with negative messaging surrounding plastics, and plastic packaging in particular. This ultimately manifests itself as a negative association with the term plastics, irrespective of whether it has any impact on the environment (positive or negative).

Changes in consumer perception based on wording is not exclusive to plastic products – changes in phrasing or order of terms can also significantly impacts how consumers perceive environmental impacts of packaged products (Even if the underlying definition has not changed). Figures 3 and 4 illustrate this finding:

Fig.3 (Recycling)

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Fig.4 (Waste Reduction)

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The use of the term mechanical or chemical recycling results in a significant decrease in perceived environmental impact when compared to the term recycling alone. A similar result was observed for waste reduction, which saw the term “Less Waste” being viewed more favorably among households when compared to reduction or minimization. It should be noted that our study could not establish a causal relationship between why certain phrases resonated with respondents more than others. However, we hypothesize that while all of these terms are interchangable to a degree (with the exception of chemical recycling), households seem to have a very limited definition of what constitutes recycling or reduction . As a result, anything that falls outside that purview is met with skepticism with respect to the beneficial environmental impacts at end of life.

While additional research needs to be conducted in this area, our findings suggest that words matter…. a lot. It is critical that producers, municipalities and service providers communicate in a clear and consistent way, and better educate consumers about what terms mean and why.