This is the last in a six-part series that explores five focus areas for businesses to address in plastic strategies, accelerating change and pursing the necessary scale of innovation and collaboration to address the plastics challenge. You can read the penultimate blog in this series here.

One of the many hurdles facing a circular plastics economy is how to get used packaging and materials back from the consumer and into recycling plants, in order to put it back into the supply chain.


This circularity is the key to long term sustainability of plastics and needs to be at the forefront of any plastic strategy. Simply put, without the participation of consumers, there will not be enough material to drive an effective circular economy for plastics.

Nudging Consumer Behaviour

Despite the very high profile of plastic issues, this increased awareness is not translating into consumer action, and for many of us, it has not fundamentally changed the way we behave. Changing behaviours at scale is extremely difficult, with studies showing that consumers need help to move from intention to action. Brands have an important role to play in influencing consumer behaviour, and in the case of plastics, several businesses are looking to ‘Nudge Theory’ and the growing field of behaviour economics, for answers. Nudge Theory works on the premise that by introducing changes to the environment – or ‘nudges’ – you can persuade people to make certain decisions, without removing their freedom of choice. For example, Just Eat are trialling a pre-ticked box on its app and website to encourage customers to opt out of receiving plastic they don’t need, such as plastic cutlery, straws and sauce sachets. Graham Corfield, UK Managing Director of Just Eat hopes that this initiative will help “drive more environmentally-friendly behaviour among our restaurant partners and customers. In the short-term, that means helping our customers opt-out of excess plastics.”

Quotation mark Changing behaviours at scale is extremely difficult, with studies showing that consumers need help to move from intention to action. Quotation mark

Economic nudges that offer consumers a financial incentive to either refuse or return packaging are also on the rise. Around the globe, governments are reintroducing Deposit Return Schemes (DRS) and companies are offering discounts to environmentally-minded consumers for using less single-use packaging. Pret A Manger is a pioneer in this space, with the CEO taking a hands-on approach when engaging with its customers. Aware of Pret’s responsibility to reduce the impact its product packaging is having on the environment, the coffee chain is committed to working alongside its customers to tackle the challenge together. At the end of last year, the CEO, Clive Schlee, tweeted to ask customers if doubling the discount for using reusable cups from 25p to 50p would encourage more to bring in a reusable cup. The response was overwhelmingly positive and since the increased discount was introduced in January, Pret has seen a ten-fold increase in reusable cup use. Over 85,000 drinks are now served in a reusable cup every week, with Pret customers on track to save 4 million disposable coffee cups this year.

Raising Consumer Awareness of Recycling

Research has shown that the most common barrier to recycling plastic packaging remains uncertainty over which plastics can be recycled, often resulting in material entering the wrong waste stream and being lost to the economy. With a proliferation of new materials entering the market, this confusion is only set to intensify – especially if manufacturers and retailers switch to new forms of packaging without telling end-users how to dispose of it responsibly. Coupled with growing consumer mistrust over the plastic recycling system, there is a risk some consumers will become disenchanted with businesses’ efforts.

Quotation mark The most common barrier to recycling plastic packaging remains uncertainty over which plastics can be recycled, often resulting in material entering the wrong waste stream and being lost to the economy. Quotation mark

In an effort to make recycling as easy as possible for families across the U.S., the PepsiCo Foundation (the company’s philanthropic arm), partnered with U.S. non-profit The Recycling Partnership, to launch “All In On Recycling.” As the largest ever industry-wide residential recycling challenge, the initiative will provide American consumers with the resources they need to recycle smarter. The PepsiCo Foundation is providing $10 million in funding to not only improve curb-side recycling, but critically to support recycling education and operational programs that will increase collection of recyclables, while reducing contamination. It is estimated the programme will help the U.S. capture 1.9 million tonnes of quality recyclable materials over the next five years, including 7 billion bottles and cans.

Meanwhile, Coca-Cola has launched a number of consumer awareness and educational campaigns via its new ‘World Without Waste’ recycling campaign, which follows on from the success of ‘Love Story’ – its first ad aimed at encouraging consumers to recycle its bottles. Looking ahead, the company plans to continue to use its voice in an effort to support consumer awareness and recycling efforts. In the UK for instance, the company recently used gamification to emphasise the importance of recycling through #CokeDunks, a sustainability campaign challenging teens to film themselves creatively throwing empty plastic bottles into a recycling bin before posting the content on social media.

Key considerations:

  • Tap into consumer motivations: Provide consumers with an incentive to recycle, such as considering financial rewards for returned packaging. Without consumer participation, there will simply not be enough material to drive an effective circular economy.
  • Understand the consumer landscape for recycling: Put yourself in the consumer’s shoes to understand how and where they recycle, including what the pain points are. Communication efforts can then be tailored according to these insights, for example, partnering with recycling companies to provide convenient neighbourhood drop-off locations for hard to recycle items.
  • The power of simplicity: Consumers want simple solutions, so brands need to be able to distil what is a highly complex reality, into compelling and simple messages that critically, will result in behaviour change.
  • No one size fits all: Recycling solutions will need to reflect individual consumer needs, including cultural variations. Different situations will require different solutions and to achieve societal-level change, multiple approaches are more effective than any one initiative alone. 
  • Think long-term: Companies need to adopt a long-term mindset when engaging and accelerating action and awareness; consumer behaviour change is generational and will not happen overnight.

The plastics agenda is here to stay, and solving the challenge will require scaled-up business action and engagement across the entire plastics value chain. Knee-jerk reactions to replace plastics with alternatives should be avoided, and instead, we need to ensure the plastic waste we do create is managed properly, keeping it in the economy and out of the oceans. Together, businesses have an opportunity to reshape the future of plastic through improving and innovating on packaging design, incentivising consumers to recycle, and inspiring and encouraging governments to support the industry by creating an enabling regulatory environment.

Interested in continuing the conversation? Get in touch; we would love to speak with you.