Consumers wary of products made from recycled materials


The United States has a waste problem, and it’s no secret. In 2018, the United States generated 292.4 million tons of municipal solid waste. About 50% was sent to landfills.

Recycling, or collecting materials that would have been discarded as trash and reprocessing them into new products, helps reduce this amount of waste and prevent further pollution. Consumers can choose to close the recycling loop by purchasing new products made from recycled materials. These days, you can find everything from backpacks and outdoor furniture made from old plastic, stockings and Jenga blocks from discarded fishing nets, or even water bottles and straws made from recycled steel.

However, shoppers often exhibit an attitude-behaviour gap (also known as an intention-behaviour gap) when it comes to sustainable consumption. Even though people generally have a positive attitude towards products made from recycled materials, they don’t always go through with their purchase. There are several reasons why activewear made from recycled water bottles or recycled cardboard shoes sound good in theory, but miss your shopping cart.

Consumers perceived risks that can hinder purchase intent

So why are consumers, consciously or not, foregoing recycled products? A recent review published in Resources, conservation and recycling found that environmental benefits, perceived risks, and emotions all play a role in positively or negatively influencing consumer acceptance of products made from recycled materials.

For example, products made from recycled materials can be considered environmentally friendly, which makes them more favorable, says Athanasios Polyportis, author of the review and postdoctoral researcher at the Faculty of Industrial Design Engineering of the Institute. Delft University of Technology. This green glow of alleged environmental benefits and the idea of ​​helping the world also inspires consumers to feel positive emotions like pride. However, perceived functional, contamination, and aesthetic risks can impede consumer acceptance.

When it comes to electronic devices made from recycled materials, consumers may worry about their quality and performance compared to non-recycled alternatives. Meanwhile, clothing made from recycled materials raises health and safety concerns. Some consider the possibility that these garments are not as hygienic and therefore may pose a risk to their health.

Appearance matters too. If a customer thinks a recycled product will not match their self-image, consumers may delay or forgo the purchase altogether. Additionally, “products made from recycled materials can induce negative emotions such as disgust due to the perceived risk of contamination, leading to lower purchase intentions,” says Polyportis.

[Related: 5 reasons to hold on to old silica gel packets.]

In general, products made from recycled materials are often considered inferior to their conventional alternatives. That goes for other green products like hand sanitizers and detergents, too, says Angela Chang, an associate professor of marketing at Northeastern University’s D’Amore-McKim School of Business, who was not involved in the survey. ‘exam.

Consumers perceive environmentally friendly products as less efficient or less potent than regular products. They even tend to use the product more to compensate for the perceived inferiority, she adds. Although, to be fair, not all green household consumer products are less toxic and/or more degradable than their conventional counterparts, as some manufacturers claim.

However, beyond their physical properties, there is a socio-cultural layer to consumer reluctance to embrace recycled materials. “With the rise of consumer societies, reusing objects that other people used before has become a culturally devalued practice,” says Daniel Fischer, ASU Senior Global Futures Fellow Julie Ann Wrigley Global Futures Laboratory, which did not participate in the review. . “This is associated with the ideals of ‘cleanliness’ as a collective agreement usually associated with new products.”

Fortunately, most consumer concerns about the cleanliness and safety of recycled products are just concerns, not realities.

Products made from recycled materials are not necessarily inferior

Just because a product is made from recycled materials does not necessarily mean that its performance or quality is inferior to that of a product made from virgin materials, says Shelie Miller, Jonathan W. Bulkley Collegiate Professor in Sustainable Systems at the University of Michigan.

Any consumer product must meet the same safety and quality standards that are in place, regardless of the source of the materials. “While it is true that recycled materials generally do not have the same technical properties as their virgin counterparts, they are not inherently inferior,” she adds.

Consumer acceptance of recycled products likely also depends on the product sector, Miller says. Those selling shoes and bags may be able to use recycled content and environmental benefits as a means of attracting consumers, while others selling products with higher performance and safety requirements, electronic gadgets, for example, might do better to focus on ways to reassure consumers that the product meets quality and safety standards.

[Related: Should we switch from petroleum ink to soy-based ink?]

To improve consumer acceptance, manufacturers can provide longer warranties or quality certificates that can mitigate perceived performance risk, Polyportis says. They could also apply different business models like a subscription or rental service that guarantees the high quality or long life of the product. Designing a certificate to assure consumers that the product made from recycled materials is clean and uncontaminated is also possible, he adds.

Consumers are generally willing to pay more for green products, but not for circular economy products (products with recycled content or extended life cycles) due to perceived quality issues. Using recycled materials is a fairly new phenomenon that consumers have little experience with, so information and education can be effective strategies, says Fischer. A 2021 Resources, conservation and recycling Research shows consumers are willing to pay more for circular economy products when provided with environmental information, especially those with independent third-party certification for their environmental claims.

So if you’re hesitant to buy a recycled product, don’t worry, you’re probably buying the same quality of products, but at a lower cost to the planet.

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