What does ChatGPT have to say about packaging sustainability? Robert Lilienfeld, founder and executive director of sustainable packaging think tank SPRING, recently conducted a thought experiment along these lines, and details the results – and his opinions on them – in our latest opinion article.


Some of you probably know that I’ve been using ChatGPT to help research my articles. No, I’m not being lazy. I’m being curious.

What I hypothesized, and now believe to be true, is that AI as we know it does not provide new information. It merely reflects the material and chatter it picks up from the digital world. AI draws no conclusions of its own, at least not yet.

By taking this approach, you can find both the patterns and gaps that form the basis for both our current and past thinking. As I will show, there is nothing wrong with the content generated by AI. But it is the lack of context in present in AI findings, and thus in our own perspectives, that needs to be addressed.

I asked ChatGPT 4 the following question: What are the best ways to motivate consumers to recycle?

Here is the perfectly reasonable, and frankly expected response:

1. Education and Awareness: Educating the public about the benefits of recycling and the impact of not recycling is crucial. This could include information about how recycling saves energy, reduces pollution, conserves natural resources, and decreases greenhouse gas emissions.

2. Making Recycling Convenient: The easier it is to recycle; the more likely people will do it. This includes providing sufficient recycling bins in easily accessible locations, clear labeling of what can be recycled, and simplified sorting procedures.

3. Financial Incentives: Financial rewards can be a powerful motivator. This could be in the form of deposit-return schemes for bottles and cans, or even discounts or rewards for participating in recycling programs.

4. Social Norms and Peer Pressure: Leveraging social influence can be effective. Campaigns that show recycling as a normative, socially desirable behavior can motivate people to recycle to fit in with their community.

5. Regulations and Policies: Government policies can mandate recycling in certain areas or for certain materials, making it a legal responsibility rather than a choice.

6. Positive Reinforcement and Feedback: Providing positive feedback for recycling efforts, such as showing the amount of material recycled or the environmental impact of these efforts, can reinforce the behavior.

7. Innovative Technology: Using technology to make recycling more efficient and engaging, like apps that track recycling habits or machines that automatically sort recyclables, can increase participation.

8. Community Engagement and Events: Organizing community recycling events or challenges can encourage participation and raise awareness about recycling practices.

9. Partnerships with Businesses: Collaborating with local businesses to promote recycling, such as by featuring recycled products or creating joint recycling initiatives, can amplify the impact.

10. Addressing Misconceptions: Clearing up common misconceptions about recycling, such as what can be recycled and how recycled materials are used, can remove barriers to participation.

Each of these strategies can be tailored to fit specific communities and contexts, and often a combination of several approaches is most effective in motivating a broad range of consumers to engage in recycling behaviors.

Since AI is based on summarizing what’s happened or discussed in the past, this is a perfectly reasonable set of tactics. All are promoted in various ways by the different groups working to enhance recycling efforts and results.

But they really haven’t worked that well, have they?

I believe a key reason for this limited, inconsistent success is that these are merely tactics, and thus lack the two critical aspects required to make any undertaking of this size a successful one: statement of objective, and development of strategies that naturally lead to the desired result.

So, what’s the objective? The average person cannot tell you why we should recycle, other than because “It’s good for the planet.” That’s hardly a compelling reason to take the time to sort one’s trash, is it?

The reality is that we recycle to save resources, reduce greenhouse gas generation, and prevent pollution related to landfill use. Now, we’re giving people some to chew on – but still, just barely. We need to go further.

Given these recycling goals (the “what”), our strategies must provide the paths (the “how”) by which we reach them. Since doing so is very much an issue related to human nature and motivation, the strategies must reflect a desire for action. Thus, the focus should be on creating programs and messaging that is both relevant and distinctive:

  • Relevance is the key to motivating people to act. People will act if a problem appears to be close to them in terms of who it affects (family, friends, acquaintances, strangers), when it will affect them (today, tomorrow, far in the future), and how large that effect might be (health, safety, finances, self-esteem). A problem that is not perceived to be relevant will not be considered meaningful and will thus fall off the perceptual radar.
  • Issues must be presented so that they are distinctive. People generally react to simple, rather than complex scenarios that present a clear problem followed by easy-to-enact solutions.

Based on the above, here’s a far more compelling message: By recycling, you help ensure that you, your family, and your community minimize the negative impact of the climate change that you’ve already started to experience.

The lesson here is simple but profound: The content of what you promote is important, but not as important as the context in which you present it.

Joyeux Nöel and Happy New Year!

If you liked this article, you might also enjoy:

The L’Oréal approach to packaging sustainability

The way we talk about plastic needs to change – here’s how to get it right

What steps is Apple taking to make its packaging more sustainable?

The Danone approach to packaging sustainability