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Old habits die hard: ideas to boost recycling at home

On the face of it, plastic bottles are pretty easy to recycle.

So why are only around 50% of those in the UK – below the European average – ending up in the recycling bin? This was one of the questions asked by the University of Exeter in a pioneering study, Unpacking the Household. It found a pressing need to break old recycling habits and forge new ones. But how to do this?

This is where Coca-Cola Enterprises (CCE), which funded the Exeter study, asked for’s help. OpenIDEO is an online global community of 60,000 designers, creative people and experts from all walks of life. Together they seek to find solutions to some of society’s biggest and most challenging problems, so an ideal place to look for answers.

CCE and OpenIDEO launched an 11-week challenge in March to find ways of helping people to forge new recycling habits. The findings of the Exeter study were used as a foundation (see ‘The Exeter study’ below). More than 200 ideas were put forward, whittled down to just 25 by the OpenIDEO community using a set of evaluation criteria. CCE and the OpenIDEO team then came together for a day to select the final eight ideas, detailed on these pages.

CCE is currently looking at which ideas it might take forward to pilot and the possible effect they might have on at-home recycling rates. (See ‘Smart ideas around recycling’, top right) But these ideas are open source, so anyone can take them forward. In fact, according to OpenIDEO, that’s the whole point. Any company or organisation can take an initiative or elements of an idea to help it improve its recycling and environmental record.

The Exeter study

Three-quarters of British and French consumers claim to always recycle plastic bottles at home. But recycling rates do not reflect this, with just over half of all bottles being recycled. Exeter University carried out a six-month study of 20 households across Britain and France, funded by CCE ( Here are some of its key findings:

  • Household habits have a significant influence on recycling levels. People do not always make conscious decisions about recycling, and instead the way they behave is an instinctive process built into their daily lives.
  • Relying on behaviour change is only part of the solution. Recycling infrastructure that surrounds household practices must also be considered, and adjusted to encourage the formation of new habits and embed them into daily life.
  • Aesthetics are king. Physical space is often needed to make recycling a viable option, and some people are not willing to compromise the aesthetics of their home to make room for a recycling bin.
  • Misunderstandings about what happens to waste limits appreciation of the true value of recycling. People see recycling as a linear rather than circular process and some sceptical beliefs are held, such as recyclables are ‘sent to landfill’ or most are exported.
  • Recycling is seen as complex and confusing. There is confusion about which materials can be recycled.
  • Children can be agents of change. They frequently recall the recycling information received at school and relay it to their parents. Teens tend to forget this information and quickly lose interest.

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