The power of social norms to encourage recycling

On the 18th March 2022 it was Global Recycling Day, this is an initiative (which first started in 2018) that recognises the importance recycling plays in preserving our natural resources and ultimately our planet. Recycling is one of the most accessible behaviours that an individual can adopt to be more sustainable, although findings from our Great Green Sustainability Study show that nearly a quarter of people still don’t recycle regularly.

Meanwhile, looking specifically at the returning of soft plastics to supermarket recycling points, only 1 in 10 currently claim to do this, yet soft plastics form 22% of all UK citizen plastic packaging, second only to bottles at 44%.[i]

What can we do to change their behaviour?

There are a number of different ways in which we can use behavioural science to help understand and encourage more sustainable behaviours but one of the most common heuristics (cognitive mental shortcuts) that could be taken advantage of is the power of social norms.

Social norms are shared, unwritten standards of acceptable behaviour by groups or society, they are triggered by the presence and expectation of others. The majority of people want approval and want to belong; therefore they tend to conform and follow the norms.

Using social norms to influence messaging

Findings from our study show that 58% of people claim that they don’t recycle soft plastics to supermarkets because they don’t know anyone who does it, so how can we use social norms to influence this perception?

There are two types of social norms that can be used to motivate individuals (Cialdini et al, 1991)[ii]:

  1. Injunctive norm – refers to people’s perceptions of what is approved (or disapproved) by the majority and can help determine if a behaviour is socially acceptable. For example, believing that recycling is a good thing and approved by others.
  2. Descriptive norm – refers to how people do in fact behave. For example, seeing others recycling would therefore make you feel like you should also recycle.

Both these norms are distinct but also overlap e.g. people believe recycling is beneficial, therefore they recycle.

Cialdini et al (2003)[iii] conducted research measuring the effectiveness of using both types of norms in messaging materials to encourage recycling. They found that individuals who engaged in recycling spoke more approvingly of it and using these normative techniques in communication materials significantly increased recycling intentions.

Real world examples

We are seeing a descriptive norm messaging style used in recycling campaigns to subtly nudge individuals in the right direction to recycle more. For example, in 2019 Recycle Now, a WRAP campaign, used normative messaging ‘Everyone Does’ to encourage UK citizens to recycle.

Brands are also starting to test behavioural science messaging on packaging. A trial involving both Boots and Radox found an increase in recycling rates when a simple label was placed on shower gel bottles saying ‘Most people recycle me’.

Ultimately, there are many ways in which social norms can have an influence on increasing recycling rates, especially for soft plastics. Local councils, brands and retailers could all benefit from using different normative techniques to encourage others to recycle more. For example, messaging that implies that some people are recycling soft plastics may encourage others to follow suit. Alternatively, putting on activities or competitions in which people are encouraged or rewarded for recycling soft plastics will allow people to observe others recycling and may be nudged to do so themselves.

To find out more about our Great Green Sustainability Study or how we can help you with sustainability please contact Tom Gould, Head of Consumer on:


[i] Flexible Plastic Packaging | WRAP. (2022). Retrieved 15 March 2022, from

[ii] Cialdini, R. B., Kallgren, C. A., & Reno, R. R. (1991). A focus theory of normative conduct: a theoretical refinement and reevaluation of the role of norms in human behavior. Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, 24; 201–234.

[iii] Cialdini (2003). Crafting Normative Messages to Protect the Environment. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 4(12), 105-109

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