Case Study

Small Plastics Recycling


Small plastics are nearly ubiquitous—they are commonly found in toys, office supplies, baby products, and as containers and packaging for countless products. Due to their size, many municipal recycling centers are not appropriately set up to accept small plastics, which often fall through grates or belts and are excluded from the recycling process due to their size.  They are either treated as trash and sent to landfills or get lost in the process and damage machinery.


Attempts to separately recycle small plastic items have struggled because people either assume they will be recycled successfully if they are placed in curbside bins or don’t think to recycle them at all.  These items are often perceived as insignificant and are considered trash. To tackle this problem, we see two potential solution routes: takeback programs and upstream reduction.

Takeback – Barriers and Solutions

Takeback programs collect large quantities of previously considered non-recyclable small plastics and transform them into manufacturer-ready materials. Various organizations, nonprofits, and corporations (such as Burt’s Bees) partner with takeback programs (such as Terracycle), but adoption of these programs is not widespread due to several barriers:

  • People lack awareness, both that small plastic items cannot be recycled curbside and that takeback options are available.
  • People lack motivation to participate in takeback programs.
  • There is significant friction associated with performing the key behavior and participating in a takeback program.
  • People often lose small plastic items before they have the chance to participate in a takeback program.

We explored potential solutions to address the barriers preventing people from engaging in takeback programs. The following solutions were evaluated for potential impact and feasibility:

  • Online customers are defaulted into enrolling into a takeback program at checkout.
  • Online customers must make an active choice regarding takeback programs at checkout.
  • Provide in-home collection bins.

Takeback – Experimental Design

The proposed intervention will test whether altering the structure of the Burt’s Bees online checkout process influences the number of customers who participate in takeback programs, as well as the amount of small plastics sent in for takeback. The team’s hypothesis is as follows:

  • Customers who are defaulted into, or who must actively choose whether or not to receive an envelope, will have a higher participation rate in Terracycle’s takeback program than those who are not.

At checkout, Burt’s Bees online customers are randomized into one of three groups:

  • Control – no change to the checkout process
  • Default Treatment – at checkout, a box next to the statement “I want to recycle my Burt’s Bees products using Terracycle” is selected by default
  • Active Choice Treatment – at checkout, customers encounter a step that forces them to select one of two boxes:  “I want to recycle my Burt’s Bees products using Terracycle” or “I don’t want to recycle my Burt’s Bees products using Terracycle.  I will recycle my products using another method.” 

Customers in the default group who do not deselect the box receive a Terracycle-accepted, pre-printed envelope in the mail with their ordered products. Those in the active choice group who select the first option will receive the same envelope.

Expected Results: We expect this would have a low to moderate impact on Terracycle returns, but with very low resource outlay from Burt’s Bees.

Upstream – Barriers and Solutions

Despite awareness of the problems associated with plastic waste, people continue to buy plastic products. Several barriers prevent people from reducing their small plastic consumption:

  • There is a lack of alternative options to small plastic products.
  • Purchasing and using small plastic items is often the most convenient option for personal care products, food services, office supplies and more.
  • Small plastic items are often bundled with other purchases such as food or are offered for free.
  • The negative impacts of purchasing and using small plastics, especially single-use plastics are not salient for users.
  • People lack awareness of refill and reuse programs.
  • There is significant friction associated with successfully participating in refill and reuse programs.

There are three opportunity areas to reduce the consumption of small plastics:

  • Reuse – reusing already-owned small plastics through refill programs or repurposing
  • Reformulation – encouraging manufacturers to reduce packaging or shift product materials
  • Reduction – encouraging consumers to buy or use fewer small plastics

The following solutions were evaluated for potential impact and feasibility:

  • Offer discounts or incentives for refilling products rather than purchasing new ones (reuse).
  • Allow those wishing to participate in refill to swap their containers in store (reuse).
  • Give people the option to sign up for refill reminders upon purchase of a refillable product (reuse).
  • Offer discounts on products sold in paper or aluminum packaging rather than plastic (reformulate).
  • Charge an added, salient cost for single-use items (reduce).

Upstream – Experimental Design #1

The proposed intervention will determine whether alterations to the saliency, incentives, and reminder communications associated with refill programs would lead to an increase in their uptake and customer participation through in-person retail options. The team’s hypothesis is as follows:

  • Offering discounts to participate in refill or swap programs increases sales of products while decreasing small plastic consumption.

Retailers would be randomized by location into three groups: 

  • Control – no changes to their store or operations
  • In-Store Refill Station Treatment – customers would be encouraged to bring an empty container they already own and refill it from a bulk dispenser with a discount applied at checkout
  • Swap Program Treatment – customers who bring in an empty product container would be given a discount to purchase that product anew

We would measure sales of the specific product(s) at each retailer. In addition, total plastic consumption could be calculated for the groups, with each refill accounting for one fewer plastic product manufactured and each swap (in theory) accounting for a reduction in plastic products manufactured.

Expected Results: We expect moderate impacts on behavior from these interventions. There would likely be moderate financial costs in the short run, but these strategies might actually be less expensive at scale due to decreased packaging costs.

Why It Matters

Globally, we make and buy 70 times more stuff than we did in the 1950s, 99% of which becomes waste within the first 12 months of purchase. Most products and packaging are designed for a single use and most of the resulting waste, which isn’t accepted by public recycling systems, ends up in our landfills or incinerators. Takeback, refill, reuse, and repurpose programs can be a bridge to small plastics reduction.