Carton Council of North America (CCNA) is an industry organization committed to growing carton recycling in the U.S. When CCNA first started, only 18% of U.S. households had access to carton recycling. Now 62% of households – more than 78 million – can recycle their cartons via local recycling programs. Despite a significant increase in U.S. households’ access to carton recycling, many families are still unsure whether they can recycle their cartons.

In 2023, Fenton partnered with CCNA to facilitate two message tests to deepen our understanding of consumer behaviors and attitudes toward carton recycling. Online focus groups that surveyed consumers who live in areas where carton recycling is accessible were used to determine the most effective messaging for increasing consumers’ likelihood of recycling and their trust in recycling centers and systems. 

Some of the findings from these message tests surprised us. For example, we know from our many years working on elections that social pressure is incredibly effective for moving voters. However, we learned through these tests that the opposite is true when moving consumers to recycle their cartons. 

We learned this through our first test, which sought to determine the most effective messaging in increasing audiences’ favorability towards carton recycling. The tested messaging was developed using consumer research studies, which indicated that an emphasis on the simplicity of recycling and the social pressure to recycle are key behavioral insights and motivators for consumers to recycle their cartons. 

The results of this initial message test indicated a clear winner. The “simplicity” message, emphasizing the ease of recycling, increased audiences’ favorability towards carton recycling more effectively than the “social pressure” message, which encouraged audiences to recycle because everyone else around them is, too. 

Additionally, this test indicated a general distrust of recycling systems from consumers, with several survey responses sharing disbelief that carton recycling is effective or that cartons are recycled once picked up.

We developed a second message test to determine the most effective messaging in increasing audiences’ trust in recycling centers and systems to address consumers’ indicated barriers to carton recycling.

We developed the two messages for this second test using insights from our first test, including consumers’ preference for messages of simplicity or the ease of recycling and the fact that many consumers reported not being aware of how carton recycling works. Our hunch was that by clearly showing either 1. how cartons are easily transformed into everyday products or 2. how carton recycling works, we would see a shift or increase in the trust consumers reported towards recycling systems. 

This test indicated the importance of educating consumers on the carton recycling process and that this awareness correlated with increased trust in existing recycling systems. Ultimately, the second video “How Carton Recycling Works” which explained the process of recycling cartons, was the most effective for increasing consumers’ trust in recycling centers and systems.

Both message tests generated statistically significant results, at a 90%+ confidence level, with a majority of positive responses from all the videos used in both tests across potential (those who don’t currently recycle but likely could) and current carton recyclers. They each provided key insights and learnings that Fenton has successfully utilized to inform our strategy for growing the movement of avid carton recyclers, including:

  • Audiences are eager to understand the process of carton recycling and when consumers are educated on this process, they are more likely to trust and participate in recycling their cartons. 
  • Emphasizing the simplicity and ease of carton recycling is essential for increasing consumers’ likelihood to recycle their cartons.
  • Explaining the intricacies of carton recycling increases trust across the board, especially among those who never recycle or dispose of cartons in the trash.

Lastly, we learned that testing and online focus groups continue to provide insightful findings on the messaging that moves target audiences.