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Education may prove better than incentives to improve recycling

Rebecca Cocking

About a month ago, I decided to take my glass bottles and jars to the recycling bank because where I live we do not have a kerbside collection for glass. But we do have a fortnightly collection of mixed materials: metals, cardboard, paper and mixed plastic.

When I mentioned I was going to take the glass for recycling on my way to the supermarket, my two daughters asked if they could come. On our way to the recycling banks, they asked whether they could put the empties in the banks. But as they are both too small to be able to reach on their own, I suggested they pass me the containers. A solution they both agreed to.

“So what?”, you might say. But what I realised is that they were both excited about the prospect of doing some recycling and were aware of what to do, combined with a huge interest in what they are doing and why. They easily recognised most of the colours of the bottles and knew where each one needed to go; if they were not sure they asked. And once we had finished, my eldest walked over to the bin to put the empty carrier bags in without me having to tell her.

It all made me feel rather proud and, thinking back, it was not difficult to teach them how to recycle.

We have two bins in our kitchen, one for recycling and one for residual, and a bag for glass. During the past couple of years, whenever they are throwing things away, I tell my kids which bin to put them in. They now do this without having to think twice, and I’ve even heard my eldest telling off my 23-year-old nephew for putting a plastic bottle in the residual bin.

“A lot of consumers are doing what they are told but do not fully understand why”

With this in mind, I therefore question the need for offering incentives to recycle. Is it really that hard for consumers to understand? Or is it that they do not really know why they should do what is being asked of them?

One of the most common arguments used in support of commingled collections is that it is what consumers want and is convenient for them. But if commingled is the solution, then why do we need to incentivise? It appears at present that a lot of consumers are doing what they are told but do not fully understand why.

While writing this article, I overheard another example from a colleague, who recently took a broken microwave to his local civic amenity site. The door of the microwave had broken so he removed it completely, and asked his wife to take it to the general waste skip.

When she went to put it in the skip, she was told by the local authority employee to put it in the glass skip. Her husband had already told her that it was borosilicate glass and not soda lime, and that mixing it with the glass waste would contaminate it. She informed the employee of this and he agreed with her after she mentioned the word ‘borosilicate’. While it should be acknowledged that the employee was trying to do the right thing, he was clearly not fully educated about what can and cannot be recycled.

I think there is a lot we can take from these experiences. Small amounts of information over a period of time can make a real change in behaviour. So do we need to incentivise or is better education the key to improve recycling?

Rebecca Cocking is recycling manager at British Glass

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