How to Talk About Plastics

How to Talk About Plastics: our new guide to help businesses and organisations use language more effectively to encourage reuse before recycling

Our team of linguists have produced a short guide for businesses and other organisations on ‘How to Talk About Plastics’. The guide is based on our research as part of the Many Happy Returns project. It provides some key recommendations on how to use language more effectively to encourage reuse before recycling.


Our linguistic research

The Language team on the Many Happy Returns project collected and analysed over four and half million words of everyday communication about plastics in order to understand what sorts of language might be most successful in persuading people to reuse plastic.

As linguists, we know that the best way to observe people’s language is ‘in the wild’. This is because the way we think we use language doesn’t always line-up with the way we actually speak and write. Human beings’ self-reports of their linguistic behaviour are often partial or unreliable. For this reason, as well as holding focus group discussions with members of the public to hear their views on reusable plastic packaging, our Language team also observed the language people use in public online spaces. This involved scraping social media for text, particularly Twitter, as well as gathering language from discussions on forums such as Reddit and Mumsnet.

All of this data was analysed using computer software, which allows a large set of language, known as a ‘corpus’, to be examined systematically and with relative speed. By studying the patterns in our corpus of language about plastics, we gained a broader and more nuanced insight into how people relate to reuse, and how this compares with concepts like recycling or repurposing.

On the other side of the coin, we also wanted to understand how plastic producers and plastic-concerned bodies – manufacturers, government, retailers, packaging designers, and so on – communicate around these issues to the public. So, we conducted an industry-focused survey on the language of packaging labels with participants ranging from packaging suppliers and retail representatives to waste-conscious NGOs. We triangulated these findings with texts gathered from public-facing sources: retailer websites, campaign literature, on-pack labels, and more. By building up a dataset of the language used by public-facing organisations, and comparing it with the language of consumers, we were able to identify gaps and opportunities for optimising public messaging.

Our new guide, ‘How to Talk About Plastics’, presents some of the key headlines resulting from this research and condenses our findings into a set of easily actionable dos and don’ts. Our aim is to help organisations to use the right language in their marketing, advertising, instructional information, and general communications to encourage more pro-environmental behaviour and more plastics reuse.

Download the guide

Our findings and recommendations

If you want to read about our research in detail, our first academic article is freely available to download here. We’ll also be updating this webpage regularly with links to more forthcoming publications as they become available.

We’ve summarised some of our key findings in the ‘How to Talk About Plastics’ guide and a lot of these are likely to make immediate sense to you when you read them. For example, since research by WRAP has shown that the average time consumers spend reading labels on packaging is around 10 seconds or less, it stands to reason that language about how to reuse or recycle plastic needs to be as clear and simple as possible. Our own research has revealed, though, that many manufacturers and retailers aren’t being clear in their labelling and packaging choices.

Many plastics are still covered with multiple messages, often printed in tiny font, or using confusing symbols that mean little to consumers.

Similarly, even though the use of language to make false claims about the environmental impact of a product is increasingly being challenged in the UK courts and through legislation, ‘greenwashing’ is still rife in marketing and advertising. Our research revealed that consumers are wise to this and react negatively when they spot it, so one of our key recommendations is to ensure that any language around plastics is greenwash-free.

We also found a wealth of research in linguistics, psychology, and marketing that suggests that consumers are easily overwhelmed not just by the sheer scale of environmental problems, but also by receiving too many green messages at once. What is more, even in the current climate emergency, products that are perceived as ‘too green’, ‘too worthy’, or ‘woke’ can cause adverse reactions in a large section of the population. This is why it’s best to stick to just one or two green messages and to focus on easy-to-understand actions that can have an immediate and tangible effect on the environment. Reusing plastic packaging is perfect for this, since it’s one area of the environment where individual consumers can have a positive impact through comparatively small and simply actions.

Reframing the language of plastics

Some of our other findings and recommendations may be more surprising. For instance, it’s currently widely accepted thinking in marketing and advertising that positive language is most effective in changing public behaviour. Positive language is commonly used to make particular lifestyles look attractive, to flatter customers, and to sell products. However, our research has revealed that its impact may be limited to certain circumstances.

Studies in both linguistics and psychology have shown that positively framed messages are effective for encouraging high-level reasoning, for example in inspiring people, or in encouraging them to accept a particular ethical or political perspective. Contrary to popular belief, though, positive language is far less successful in persuading people to carry out concrete actions made in the moment, or to change lower-level reasoning. In these situations, negatively framed language can have much more impact.

Take an environmental advice sticker on a new washing machine as an example. A sticker using negative language – ‘Don’t wash hot’ – is much more likely to affect someone’s choices at the moment of use than one using positive language – ‘Wash at 30°’. Using negative constructions like ‘don’t’ or ‘no’ or ‘stop’ is a good choice if you’re trying to change a basic choice or physical act which doesn’t require complex thinking.

Our guide suggests that combining positive and negative language to achieve different aims can be impactful too. Examples of this approach could include, ‘Don’t bin me! Reuse me!’ on a plastic bottle cap. Or ‘Don’t forget to reuse! Your choices make a difference’.

A final key finding of our research was that we need to change some of the deeply entrenched stories that we tell about plastics through our day-to-day language. These stories aren’t just told in novels and films, but they exist in much smaller components of language we may not even notice we’re using.

For instance, our research found that many retailers in the UK tell stories in their marketing campaigns in which they position themselves as the heroes, responsible for lots of actions and helping customers to make the right environmental choices and be good citizens. They do this by talking frequently about what they’re doing to ‘support’ consumers, what they ‘provide’ for them, or ‘give’ them.  When we looked at the language consumers use around plastics, however, we found that this is not how they view the situation. Instead, consumers more often feel frustrated when they try to reuse plastics and they express anger at supermarkets and other organisations for causing the problem of plastics pollution in the first place. They feel it’s unjust for the responsibility for clearing up the mess to be put on them and they don’t recognise retailers and manufacturers as doing anything to help.

In our guide, we suggest that the stories we’ve told about plastics for decades need to change. If the goal is to encourage reuse before recycling, then new language is needed which communicates more effectively with consumers to make this happen.

The stories we tell about plastics on packaging, in marketing campaigns and advertising, in advice leaflets and on social media need to put everyday people in the role of the hero. These are the people who work hard to make pro-environmental choices, who make sacrifices to buy goods and services responsibly, who take care to reuse plastic as many times as they can, and who go out of their way to recycle conscientiously. These consumers should be at the heart of all our green stories and should be represented accurately as taking the actions needed to reduce plastic waste.

Next steps

Please download our free guide, ‘How to Talk About Plastics’ and feel free to get in touch with Professor Joanna Gavins, our Language lead, if your organisation would like further advice on using language effectively to make a change.