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Householders finally have their say on recycling

Key to boosting England’s stalled household recycling rate is to engage with the householders being asked to recycle more.

And those living in urban areas are generally recognised to have poorer recycling rates than their rural counterparts – making them the key section of the population to target.

How best to engage with the public has been an ongoing discussion in the industry. So why not just ask those same householders how they feel about recycling and what the barriers are?

That is what a piece of work – commissioned by Sita UK and led by campaign group Keep Britain Tidy and research consultancy Britain- Thinks – has done, which has resulted in a report called The Ur[bin] Issue. It used a ‘citizens’ jury’ approach (see box 2), working with groups of 12 people recruited from the streets of Lewisham in London and Manchester, to find out the answers to three key questions (see box 1). Watch the video summary here.

At the launch of the report, David Palmer Jones, Sita UK’s chief executive, said: “Until now, I believe that householders have tended to be the passive recipient of whatever system policy makers and technical experts have believed they ought to have. This way of doing things has its limitations, not least in the sense of the disengagement and apathy that you see before us. What this study does is embrace the public as equal partners.”

During the two days that each jury session was held, the members of the public involved – who started with very little knowledge and interest in recycling – found that with greater knowledge they became enthused and animated about recycling and what the solutions could be.

They explored the choices and different systems behind recycling, as well as the underlying social, economic and environmental motivations for doing so, before coming up with an action plan (see box 3) to increase urban recycling in their local areas.

Three main, interlinking areas came up through the inquiry:  

  • Engagement – the need to build knowledge, understanding and skills around recycling;
  • Motivation – making the benefits visible and local, and promoting local care for the community;
  • Infrastructure and service provision – providing the enablers.

In general, it was found that there was widespread confusion about the realities of recycling, what materials could be recycled, where they went and what they became. People also felt there was little clarity as to why recycling was a good thing to do and what the benefits were. There was also a feeling of disconnect from the organisations involved in the recycling chain and also between the public and the stuff they threw away.

The researchers found that certain pieces of information really struck a chord with the public, for example, the statistic that the UK is due to fill its landfill space in four years’ time.

“This is the biggest surprise for me. Why is it not common knowledge that landfills will be full in four years?” asked one participant. Another fact that hit home was that a quarter of a typical household’s waste stream is food waste. This led to many people without food waste collections saying that this was the single best thing their council could do to help them recycle more.

Little positive feedback from councils or even a simple ‘thank you’ for their recycling efforts was another interesting point raised. As one juror said: “The council tells us to recycle, but then they don’t make it easy for us to do it and also punish us for not doing it.”

It was felt that better communication would help motivate people to recycle more, and also that visible community benefits would be a large motivator. The researchers pointed out that it was community rather than individual incentives that participants seemed more interested in, with some indication that individual rewards may drive more perverse behaviour. But it was thought that there was scope to look at ideas around competition within communities.

Participants also felt that communication designed to motivate recycling and give better information about what can and cannot be recycled was best done at the point of use, such as on packaging and on bins, rather than leaflets put through doors.

Many participants were surprised about the economics of recycling, that councils had to pay to dispose of waste in landfill but could earn money by selling recyclables. This led to questions around the benefits to be gained for the country if we all recycled more, as well as where the money went and where it could be used.

Predictably, the jurors were frustrated about the complexity of recycling systems and confused by the different services used across the country. They also found the different types of packaging used confusing and inconvenient.

A 10-point action plan that came from the inquiry is intended to be a starting point for discussion in the industry, with some of the recommendations likely to need further exploration. But how do we now take this from action plan to reality?

Phil Barton, chief executive of Keep Britain Tidy, says: “We need to bring the actors together, along with the public, but with Government leadership. The thing we feel most disappointed with about this Government is that it has not provided leadership. That does not necessarily mean money, but it means clarity, it means frameworks, it means knocking heads together.

“In our work on trying to sway the manifestos for the next Government, we are pushing for clear statements of intent. In tackling this, it is not just about what the local authority needs to achieve or the business needs to achieve, but it is about getting inside the heads of householders – about how you make it clear, how you make it easy and how you convince them [that recycling] is the right thing to do. And that is about building trust.”

Palmer Jones adds that, in the absence of Government leadership, the industry must come together as a unified voice that becomes difficult to ignore. He says: “The closer we collaborate and the more unified the voice, the more chance we have of influencing our political masters who still have a very important role in ensuring the direction of travel. We can’t do everything on our own.

“The key to this is big leadership, lots of behavioural change and lots of partnership with local government. So let’s collaborate better together.  

Box 1

The key questions

Sita UK and Keep Britain Tidy set out to answer the following questions:

● What does the public currently think about recycling and why?

● Which pieces of information and messages are the ‘penny drop’ moments that persuade citizens that recycling is a serious issue?

● What does the public think we should do to increase urban recycling in England?

Box 2

What is a citizen’s jury?

Citizens’ juries tend to take place over two or more days and involve a small group of people, recruited to reflect society in terms of age, gender, social class, region and so on.

Through a series of presentations, panel discussions, group exercises and plenary debates, participants receive unbiased, factual briefings on the issue from experts in the policy area, as well as being exposed to arguments and perspectives from a wide range of voices and viewpoints.

Participant jurors are able to question experts directly to build greater clarity and understanding on the topic, like a real jury. Then they develop their own recommendations for the way forward.

Citizens’ juries are moderated by external experts to ensure the process is fully objective.

On this occasion, after the jury sessions, a representative online poll of 1,000 people was conducted to further explore some of the outcomes and insights from the juries and to check that the views held were representative.

Box 3

What we need to do now

10 key actions emerged from the citizen’s juries:

Action 1: Create a new and deeper public debate on the value of resources and waste

Action 2: Continue to invest in communication

Action 3: Profile the environmental, social and economic benefits of the waste and resources sector

Action 4: Enable local authorities to introduce a tax rebate for recycling more and reducing waste

Action 5: Rebuild trust in recycling and demonstrate local community benefits

Action 6: An overarching framework to drive greater consistency in terms of waste and recycling infrastructure and service provision across England

Action 7: Provide food waste collections for all households by 2016

Action 8: City and town council planning requirements to include household recycling obligations for developers, particularly for blocks of flats

Action 9: A revolution in the provision of recycling-on-the-go

Action 10: Eco-design for waste prevention and recycling

Reactions on Twitter


“Really 1st class report & event. Good insight from public on how to boost urban #recycling read it!”


“SITA/KBT launch today to encourage greater engagement in recycling. Good ideas. Nice video:”


“I really liked the short video – clear, concise, common sense. Just need strong leadership to



“We too often assume what householders think & second guess what they want. This report gives those urban communities a needed voice.”


“At launch of #Urbinissue study. Focuses on asking public what sector should be doing.”

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