Augmented Reality: is it the future of recycling behaviour change?

George Bennett, head of immersive at creative agency, LOVE, looks at how augmented reality (AR) can work as a tool to alert consumers to environmental issues and to encourage the recycling of product packaging. 

Augmented Reality is an increasingly useful tool for companies that strive towards creating more sustainable products and business models. Alongside material innovations, forward-thinking packaging design and new product development, a change in mindset and accountability, AR (technology that overlays a digital level of reality and content over a user’s physical perception) can play an extremely helpful role.

For example, in a future of sustainable packaging, where layers of the pack get stripped down to a minimum, where material limitations might call for simpler print design and where the production of exclusive editions or customisation is deemed too wasteful, AR can ensure that brands stand out.

Good AR can convey the complex narrative that a pack can’t accommodate, drive engagement both pre- and post-purchase and build customer loyalty.

Becoming ubiquitous

AR’s usefulness has been boosted recently by some key developments in technology and consumer perception. The emergence of WebAR, which refers to augmented reality experiences that are accessed through a web browser rather than an app, has made AR much more user-friendly and has considerably driven adoption.

AR can also be used to encourage people to recycle, and educate them about materials and their lifecycle. Without the need for additional labels, it can make the process clearer or reward users who dispose of a pack correctly

The current pandemic, and the social distancing and contact tracing it has enforced, has also made the use of QR codes more ubiquitous – and it is becoming far easier to encourage users to activate an experience through their use.

In addition, the advent of 5G means a huge leap in capabilities. Theoretically, 5G can be 100 times faster than 4G, supporting much better interactive experiences and streaming of high quality 3D visuals on the go.

A compelling solution

Thanks to such developments, AR applications can now be executed to the quality and functionality that users, and brands, need. They are ideal for adding a level of information, with deeper engagement, to a product, pack or environment.

When it comes to sustainability in packaging, for example, a well-designed AR experience can help people engage with a brand and its sustainability messaging. It can unlock access to information about provenance, show a product’s journey from field to table, and highlight a company’s efforts to be less wasteful.

A recent project from Chiquita Bananas, for example, allowed users to follow the journey of the product, highlighting the brand’s varied initiatives to reduce environmental impact. Such depth and engagement would never be possible on a physical pack alone.

Nudging towards better habits

AR can also be used to encourage people to recycle, and educate them about materials and their lifecycle. Without the need for additional labels, it can make the process clearer or reward users who dispose of a pack correctly.

Finnish dairy Arla, for example, teamed up with bio energy company UPM to launch a recycling game for kids – to encourage the whole family towards better habits. Recycling Buddies is activated through AR and teaches kids different ways of recycling in fun and immersive interactions and rewards.

Herbal Essences, meanwhile, used an immersive AR activation to tell buyers about their bottles’ material – made from recycled plastic picked up from the world’s dirtiest beaches.

And Adidas harnessed AR to shine a spotlight on the global challenge of plastic waste. Via its AR app, customers could dive into a huge plastic-filled ocean – complete with a giant blue whale – and help clear the floating rubbish.

Endless possibilities

The ability to continuously change or update AR content also makes it inherently sustainable. In the future, instead of re-designing the whole pack, why not support a new campaign through the AR experience around it?

Instead of customising a limited run, why not generate exclusivity, personalisation and gift-ability through bespoke, high-end AR content? Free from the constraints of space and print parameters, the possibilities are endless.

AR at its best offers multi-layered features that truly engage customers. It elicits 3 times more brain activity and holds 1.9 times the visual attention in users when compared to video (according to Mindshare), and can boast 4 times longer dwell times (ADVRTAS).

Brand owners should take note and see the technology as part of a wider drive towards delivering 3D content and making the most of its immersive possibilities.

As AR technology increasingly becomes the norm, it is time to add it to the basic sustainability toolkit.

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