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Sustainability Policy & Regulation Sustainable Transformation

Consumers keen to play their part by recycling but ASA research says efforts are misguided

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By Ellen Ormesher | Senior Reporter

November 30, 2023 | 7 min read

New research shows the public is confused about ad claims, and Britain’s ASA wants more clarity around waste disposal.

Plastic bottles in a recyling bin

The ASA has published research on people's understanding of green disposal terms / Adobe Stock

The Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) is calling for greater clarity around green waste disposal claims in ads, such as ‘recyclable’, ‘biodegradable’ and ‘compostable’, following new research that shows the public is confused and potentially being misled.

Previous research back in 2022 revealed that terms like ‘carbon neutral’ and ‘net zero’ were also confusing the public, resulting in consumers feeling misled when they came to understand their true meaning.

These insights resulted in a subsequent regulatory crackdown that put greater emphasis on the substantiation of such claims.

The latest research, conducted as part of the ASA’s ongoing and wide-ranging Climate Change and Environment project, reveals that while consumers are engaged with green disposal at home, they are reluctant to do more outside of their homes, such as taking recycling to a designated drop-off point.

It also found that consumers broadly treat green claims in ads uncritically, which risk them having an oversimplified understanding of the terms and how green disposal works in practice.

Participants in the ASA’s research also emphasized the importance of having clearer information on the disposal of product parts, as well as where products need to be taken to be responsibly and effectively disposed of.

While people are likely to understand the differences between ‘recycling’ and ‘recycled’, they're much more confused about ‘compostable’. Participants were most unsure about the term ‘biodegradable’, and expressed anger and frustration when they learned that this term could refer to an unlimited timescale and that some products can release toxins upon degrading.

There were widespread calls for stronger transparency about the length of time a product that’s described as ‘biodegradable’ takes to degrade, as well as specific disposal risks.

“The main thing that came out of our research is that consumers are looking for greater clarity on all types of claims to ensure they are not misled,” Justine Grimley, operations manager at the ASA told The Drum.

“While people were more comfortable with claims like ‘recycled’ or ‘recyclable’, they were less comfortable with ‘compostable’ and ‘biodegradable’ was the least understood claim of all.”

She uses the example of a biodegradable credit card, “which actually required several steps to dispose of it, including the complete destruction of the card before putting it into a food waste or standard rubbish bin.”

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“When given this information, people were actually very angry and frustrated to find out that claims might not apply to the whole product, or the timescales involved, or that toxins might be released in the process of biodegrading.”

Following its findings, the ASA has updated its environmental guidance on green disposable claims, allowing a grace period until April 2024 for advertisers to absorb the new requirements. “After that, we will start to move forward with more proactive AI monitoring and investigative work to set formal positions on what’s required to make these sorts of claims,” Grimley says.

And misleading claims will doubtless be prevalent, as Grimley adds that in its latest research the ASA uncovered claims that were: “Already in breach of established positions.”

“For example, claims that a bottle was 100% recyclable when it wasn’t sufficiently clear that the cap wasn’t included in that.”

Alongside its research, the ASA has been implementing AI tools in a bid to deliver more effective regulation since 2021. “AI allowed us to scour 3 million ads last year,” Grimley says. “This year it’s looking more like 10 million.”

But certain campaign groups say this doesn’t go far enough. Ad Free Cities recently told The Drum that complaints it has submitted to the ASA have seen subsequent bans, but that the ads initially flew under the ASA’s radar.

“Campaign groups often bring us very useful information,” Grimley tells The Drum. “They are certainly part of the wider picture when it comes to the world of environmental claims.

“We have certain groups that want to see entire categories banned, but that’s not the ASA’s position as we work in an evidence-based way. That can deliver hard-hitting results, such as in our landmark HSBC ruling but we understand their position.”

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