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Aiming high to boost recycling

It’s easy to get more out of recycling campaigns if you take a targeted approach, writes North London Waste Authority chair Clyde Loakes

While it’s more important than ever to encourage residents to recycle in this time of reduced public finances, spending across the country on recycling promotion and engagement has seen a relative decline over recent years.  WRAP, the government’s recycling and waste minimisation body, has itself seen an 11% budget cut this year. The importance of recycling as a tool for councils to provide financial support for other services hasn’t been clearly communicated at a local or national level.

Against this background of increased need for high levels of recycling performance, versus shrinking communications budgets, what can authorities do to ensure they spend their limited funds wisely? A ground-breaking piece of research commissioned by North London Waste Authority (NLWA), and delivered by consultancy MEL Research into the motivation for, and barriers to, recycling has found a ‘targeted’ communications approach could increase recycling rates among key groups of householders.

NLWA, which is made up of the London Boroughs of Barnet, Camden, Enfield, Hackney, Haringey, Islington and Waltham Forest currently, collectively, recycle only about a third of household waste. The eight authorities (NLWA and the seven boroughs) have set themselves a target of increasing recycling to 50% or more by 2020.

We needed to see where, in the face of cuts to communications budgets, we could help our boroughs keep the recycling message front and centre, while ensuring that the money available was spent in the wisest way possible. This research represents one of the most in-depth studies we’ve done into the recycling behaviours of north Londoners, and builds on the excellent work already carried out by WRAP in its seminal ‘Barriers to recycling at home’ report.

In the report ‘NLWA Optimising Communications, Engagement and Education’, residents were surveyed on their behaviours and then segmented according to how much they recycle. They were divided using WRAP’s seven recycling competence segmentation groups - identified in the ‘Barriers to recycling at home’ report - ranging from the ‘recycling unaware’ through to the ‘complete recycler’. Interestingly, the research found that the group recruited as ‘recycling unaware’ could now more appropriately be described as ‘aware but inactive’. Residents were also grouped according to their type of home.

The findings showed that the barriers to recycling vary across demographics, and that tailored communications and engagement activity could help overcome some of them. The results suggested that the ‘aware but inactive’ and ‘contemplated but not engaged’ could usefully be grouped together (Group 1) while the ‘intermittent’ and ‘trying their best’ could form another group (Group 2).

The research uncovered some surprising themes (see box below).

Residents on recycling: themes found in the NLWA’s research

People felt that their intention to recycle was impeded by local service provision. Respondents understood the value of recycling, and were aware of at least some of the items that could be recycled. However they didn’t recycle as much, or as often as they could because of a perception of barriers imposed by the recycling service such as access and security.

Perception of neighbours’ recycling habits was a key driver. Residents who thought that others were not recycling properly were more demotivated. Conversely, those seeing positive recycling behaviour in neighbours or groups similar to themselves were more likely to participate. Group and face-to-face communication, reinforcing examples of positive recycling behaviour, and reflecting the results of that behaviour back to residents would work well with this group.

Researchers found that for three of the four groups, another barrier to recycling was the feeling that there was ‘better’ provision of recycling services outside of London. They quoted this as ‘evidence’ that their own council were not doing ‘as much as they could’ to make recycling easy for them, hence providing a barrier to behaviour change. Communications highlighting the facilities available nearby, focused on benefits to residents, may help to tackle this.

For those in the lower recycling competence categories, typically only one person in the household is responsible for recycling, and for ‘policing’ others’ recycling behaviour. With more ‘competent’ participants, typically everyone in the household is involved.  Communications for this group should focus on practical tips and support for organising recycling in the home as well as communicating the importance of sharing the responsibility for recycling.

Organising and managing the collection of recycling within the household was a particular issue; participants falling into the higher competence segments were more likely to have a self-established ’system’ for storing recycling in the home, before placing it outside for collection or taking it to the communal bank. Those in lower competence segments were more likely to simply put items straight out into external recycling boxes, or collect items somewhere such as the kitchen counter.

An association between recycling and clean and well-kept neighbourhoods was found. Pride of place was a theme that ran across all the groups, as did a perception that a litter-free environment and effective recycling go hand in hand. Communicating about keeping the neighbourhood clean, rather than the impact on the environment was suggested because it relates directly to an individual’s daily experience of the environment.

The research also helped show how best communications could be divided up between waste disposal authorities (WDAs) and collection authorities. Group 1 would benefit from ‘simple and direct’ communications, ‘reinforced’ over an extended period of time, with information being ‘locally-specific and practical’. For Group 2 the research suggested communications on increasing capture rates should be released, coupling motivating messages and practical tips with a ‘positive’ tone, reinforcing their existing efforts to recycle.

This highlighted how individual councils are best placed to carry out ‘on the ground’ engagement work with the Group 1 audience. The more broadcast, area-wide approach to motivation and practical advice required for Group 2, was more suited to WDAs.

These conclusions are informing and shaping NLWA’s 2013/14 communications campaign to increase household recycling rates across north London. The Authority will be focusing its communications activity on those recyclers who fall in to Group 2.

The Authority’s communications will focus on dealing with the perceived barriers and gaps in knowledge on recycling, with a series of mini campaigns concentrating on different issues such as ‘in-home’ recycling systems and storage and plastics recycling. These will provide practical tips and advice, as well as information and feedback on performance backed up by messages harnessing residents’ affiliation to their local area and their community. The research can also be used by the constituent boroughs to focus communications more on step-by-step advice delivered at a very local level, toward Group 1 recyclers.

Evaluation of this new approach will also take a longer-term view, with annual surveying playing a key role in the monitoring of changing perceptions and levels of knowledge around recycling, alongside monitoring of recycling tonnage and contamination.

The research has allowed us to target resources with a clear purpose and to measure the results of that targeted work, both through surveying and the all-important increase in recycling tonnages. There are big gains to be made through dealing with the simple lack of knowledge and understanding - we know that residents in all of these groups want to be seen as recyclers, so our communications activity will focus on providing them with advice and support to show them how easy it is to do more.

See ‘related files’ box to the right to read the report.

A closer look at NLWA

Recycling figures for NLWA published in June showed an increase of 3.0 percentage points to 33.9%, compared to the same time in 2011/12. The north London councils have targets to increase recycling to 50% of household waste or more by 2020, and for landfill to fall to 15% or less of the total in the same period. In addition, the Mayor of London has also set a target for London’s waste to landfill to fall to zero by 2037.

When the figures were released, NLWA chair Clyde Loakes said the progress made was “encouraging” but that there was “still a long way to go to reach the 50% target”.

In an attempt to close this gap, back in October 2012, it launched its ‘Let’s Wise Up to Waste’ initiative, to better engage with residents and make them aware of the waste they produce, what happens to it and how it impacts on council budgets and their communities.

It ran a series of road shows and initiatives including the ‘R£CYCLE – Can you afford not to?’ campaign, which illustrates the financial benefits of recycling for communities, and the existing food waste minimisation programme.

In addition, it encouraged its 1.7 million residents to visit the Wise Up to Waste website ( which provides information about the campaign and programmes, including upcoming events and road shows around north London, new videos explaining what happens to waste, and tips and guidance on shopping smart, wasting less and recycling more.

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