Blog: Understanding Consumer Recycling Behavior, by Joe Franses, Sustainability Director at Coca-Cola Enterprises

Despite professing strong pro-environmental values around recycling, consumers are not translating these values into action. Why not?
Jun 12, 2013 8:00 AM ET

At Coca-Cola Enterprises (CCE), we talk a lot about moving beyond the four walls of our operations to influence our broader value chain.  We do this not only to reduce our own impacts but to explore new ways to create positive change on broader societal issues. 

We are focused on unlocking innovation and collaboration with many partners to solve today’s tough issues because, quite frankly, none of us can do it alone and we will rely on each other to create new answers to existing challenges. 

This is a big focus of our sustainability plan, and today we’re testing how this approach can begin to tackle recycling.

We sell 12 billion bottles and cans every year across Europe.  Each one has an implication for our resource usage and for our carbon footprint – around half of which is in our packaging. We are determined to keep those bottles and cans in circulation, to be recycled and reformed into new bottles and cans again and again.  And we’ve made some significant investments in areas like PlantBottle and new recycling infrastructure

But we need to do more.  Even with the best reprocessing facilities available, we rely on consumers putting plastic bottles into the recycling bin to make the journey of the bottle a circular one.  To do this, we must influence consumer behaviour to improve the recycling rates for drinks packaging, specifically in Britain and France.  When the CCE recycling team goes out to festivals to talk to the public about recycling, the positivity and support we see is heartening.  Research we commissioned with YouGov supports this, with nearly three-quarters of respondents across Great Britain and France stating that they always recycle plastic bottles.    

Yet recycling rates of plastic bottles in these two countries remain at around 50 per cent.  So, despite professing strong pro-environmental values around recycling, consumers are not translating these values into action. 

Why not?  In collaboration with the University of Exeter, we launched yesterday a project called Recycle for the Future, which will both explore and attempt to overcome this ‘value-action gap’.  At its heart is an innovative new research programme which works directly with families in their homes.  Over a period of five months, each household will keep a diary of their recycling behaviours and have regular in-depth conversations with a specialist researcher about their relationship with the packages and materials that come into their homes. 

The researchers will seek to understand how these materials travel into and through the household, and how family members make decisions about whether or not to recycle them.  In this way we hope to unlock the ‘black box’ of the household and understand what actually shapes consumer recycling behaviour in the home. 

From this initial partnership, we will then extend our collaboration by sharing our findings and working with the sustainability community and wider industry to innovate – to create wholly new solutions that can change the way consumers behave when it comes to household recycling. 

The Recycle for the Future research project will use collaboration and innovation to identify ways that we, and other consumer goods companies, can protect the resources we all share. 

Let us know your thoughts and get involved by contacting me on twitter:  @joefranses

Coca-Cola Enterprises (NYSE/Euronext Paris: CCE), which manufactures, bottles and markets Coca-Cola products in Western Europe, has begun a ground-breaking study with 20 households in Great Britain and France to observe at-home recycling behaviors. The study will seek to understand why recycling rates are so low, despite people expressing strong beliefs towards environmental behaviors.

Research shows that 75% of French and 76% of British consumers claim to “always” recycle plastic bottles at home, and over 63% across both countries view recycling as “a moral and environmental duty.” However, actual at-home recycling rates do not reflect these intentions with only half of all plastic bottles currently collected for recycling, revealing a significant ‘value/action gap.’ Improving these recycling rates will enable manufacturers to boost sources of locally-available high-quality recycled PET and reduce their resource footprint.

Supported by CCE’s Recycle for the Future campaign, researchers from the University of Exeter will observe ten households in both Great Britain and France over a six-month period to explore the dynamics that drive waste disposal and recycling in the home. Together with the participants, they will also explore solutions that could influence behaviors and eventually improve at-home recycling rates. Results will be shared with local authorities, NGOs and other businesses who are trying to influence environmental behaviors. CCE will collaboratively develop solutions with the wider industry and sustainability community to help improve recycling rates.

The study will explore questions such as:

  • Who are the environmental champions in the home? Preliminary quantitative research reveals a generation gap, with only 54% of 18-24 year olds across both countries saying they always recycle plastic bottles, compared to almost 90% of over-55s.
  • What is the impact of on-pack information? 37% of people say they would like to see more information on packaging about what can be recycled, yet 60% state they never check whether a pack is recyclable when they go shopping.
  • Is a lack of understanding in the infrastructure partly responsible for low recycling rates?  Over 30% of people in both countries believe collected materials are not recycled. 

“Our research team has been working on pro-environmental behavior change for many years, and we are very familiar with the ‘value/action gap,’” said Dr. Stewart Barr from the College of Life and Environmental Sciences at the University of Exeter.  “People say they want to be environmentally friendly and want to recycle, but in many cases, they don’t. This study will explore the intricacies of household decisions on recycling and identify actions that could drive long-term consumer behavior change.”

CCE has identified that packaging accounts for almost half of its carbon footprint. As part of its commitment to reduce the carbon footprint of its products by a third by 2020, the company has committed to recycle more packaging than it uses.

“Our commitment to reduce the carbon footprint of the drink in your hand by a third by 2020 means we must inspire change in consumer recycling behavior,” said Joe Franses, director of Corporate Responsibility and Sustainability. “Recycle for the Future will unlock the dynamics of household recycling behaviors and allow us to explore collaborative solutions to this challenge with the wider sustainability community. We believe this project will provide real value for other businesses, NGOs and public authorities.”

The study follows significant investment from CCE in two strategic infrastructure partnerships to increase plastics reprocessing capacity in Great Britain and France. The findings will be announced at CCE’s Sustainability Innovation Summit in October 2013. 

To follow the study or find out more, please visit:

Dorothee de Montgolfier
Coca-Cola Enterprises
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