Research Summary

Using emoticons to encourage students to recycle

Emoticons on Trash Bins Can Encourage Students to Recycle

The Journal of Environmental Education

Environmental education programs typically aim to increase people’s pro-environmental behaviors in addition to building their knowledge. However, in cases where environmental issues are not visible in daily life, helping students connect their everyday actions directly to environmental outcomes poses a challenge for teachers. This disconnect means that pro-environmental habits can be difficult to teach. For instance, students may be somewhat apathetic about recycling, because they do not fully understand what happens to waste after they throw it in the trash can. To overcome these obstacles, the authors of this study examined whether a simple visual cue, like a frowning emoticon, can influence students’ recycling behavior by inducing an emotion (or signaling a cultural norm) at the exact moment when they decide whether or not to recycle, making it unnecessary for them to have a strong cognitive connection to the outcome.

The researchers chose to evaluate recycling, because it is a familiar behavior to many people, and is simple enough for young children to adopt. Although recycling is widespread, current behaviors leave room for improvement: as of 2013, over half of the waste going into most United States landfills was recyclable material. This issue is even present at schools and universities that are known for being “green,” which is why the researchers decided to focus not on improving students’ knowledge about recycling, but on prompting recycling behavior right at the point of decision: the trash can.

Existing research shows that emoticons—simplistic images that convey emotions by resembling facial expressions—have the potential to signal social norms and values, and that “frowny faces” specifically can provide feedback that leads to behavior change.

In this study, the researchers examined the effectiveness of the red “frowny face” emoticon at changing recycling behavior through two experiments. The first took place at a northeastern U.S. elementary school that was already participating in a statewide program to encourage recycling. Researchers weighed the materials in trash cans and recycling bins at the end of each day. In the first two weeks no emoticons were used, so the researchers could determine the typical recycling rate of the school. In the next two weeks, red frowny face decals were posted on every trash can, and researchers continued to weigh the materials. In the end, researchers calculated the ratio of recycling weight to the total weight of waste materials, and compared between the periods with and without emoticons.

The second experiment was conducted at a northeastern U.S. university known for emphasizing sustainability. Researchers recruited roughly 200 undergraduate students for what was advertised as “market research,” in which they were asked to evaluate scissors. To dispose of the paper, they cut with the scissors, participants were presented with a trash bin and recycling bin; for half of participants, the trash can had a frowny face sticker on it. Researchers compared the amount of paper recycled by the groups with and without the sticker.

The results of the two experiments showed that trash bin emoticons increased recycling rates. In the first experiment at the Pennsylvania elementary school, results showed that the proportion of recycled material doubled from 22% to 44% when frowny face emoticons were in place. In the second experiment, students recycled nearly 20% more paper when the trash can had an emoticon sticker than when it did not.

Each part of this study was carried out at only one institution, which may limit the applicability of these results to other schools. Additionally, the students who participated in this study may have been predisposed to increase their recycling rates, since the authors chose to work with schools that were already committed to the environment. Finally, although different age groups were examined, the data cannot specifically address recycling behavior of individuals at different ages than the participants. More research at other schools and universities would be helpful.

Based on their analysis of these experiments, the authors recommend the use of red frowning emoticons on trash cans to improve recycling behavior among students. More broadly, the results suggest that elementary schools, universities, and potentially other institutions can use similar normative cues to increase pro-environmental behaviors.

The Bottom Line

Schools, universities, and environmental education programs often find that simply teaching students about recycling is not enough to maximize the frequency of recycling behavior. To address this challenge, the authors conducted two experiments to examine the effectiveness of using emoticons as a simple, inexpensive tool to increase recycling rates. The results of the study support the use of red frowning emoticons on trash cans as a visual cue to encourage recycling. This study specifically examined elementary school and university students, although further research may provide support for similar interventions in additional contexts.