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Insight: Is it too early to invest in rewards schemes?

Rewards schemes are an increasingly popular way of improving recycling. Household recycling rates in England have stalled in the past couple of years at around 43%, so councils are doing what they can to motivate residents torecycle more. There are UK household recycling targets to fulfill: 50% by 2020.

Rewards are given in return for pledges to recycle or by measured weight of recycling. They can include points or vouchers to spend with local businesses, schools or charities, prizes and even cash handouts.

Some notable examples of rewards schemes are: one specifically aimed at tackling food waste in Windsor and Maidenhead; Birmingham’s trial involving Nectar card points; and a partnership with Coca-Cola in Milton Keynes focusing on community encouragement.

Although rewards for householders who recycle are not a new thing, there has been a recent burst of support for such schemes.

In 2010, communities secretary Eric Pickles gave his seal of approval. He wrote in the Guardian that “carrots always work better than sticks”, and praised Windsor and Maidenhead, where the UK’s first-ever council-wide recycling reward scheme had just been introduced and had seen an increase in recycling. Then, in 2012, Pickles said he would like the scheme to be rolled out nationally.

The initiative was run in partnership with the UK division of US-based Recyclebank, which has now been taken over by Greenredeem. Recyclebank, which had expanded to several councils in the UK before the takeover, claimed it could grow recycling rates faster than the national average.

In 2012, of the 85 councils on the Department for Communities and Local Government’s (DCLG) Weekly Collection Support Scheme,
41 got money for rewards projects.

According to an MRW survey of 25 of those recipients, only 12* disclosed how much was earmarked for rewards programmes; the average spend was £295,885. Amounts awarded for incentives ranged from £30,000 in Southend-on-Sea to “around £1m” in Barnet.

Defra is also currently running trials funded by the Reward and Recognition Fund, which was set up in 2011 to invest £2m over three years to test the efficacy of such schemes. So far it has helped to run 28 pilots.

Defra told MRW: “We want to incentivise people to recycle more and reduce their waste rather than imposing fines.”

“carrots always work better than sticks”

A couple of weeks ago, the Local Government Association (LGA) came out strongly in favour of reward schemes in its review of the waste management industry. It argued that residents deserve to be rewarded for recycling andshould not be paying landfill tax through their council taxes. A LGA spokesman told MRW that its support for the initiatives was based on council feedback.

But not everyone is convinced that reward schemes work better than other factors, or represent value for money in comparison with other recycling initiatives. 

At the time of Pickles’ comments in 2012, recycling expert Jennie Rogers from said: “I find it incredible that Eric Pickles would like to see the Recyclebank scheme rolled out nationally. Does he realise that this would mean every authority would need to introduce wheeled bins [that are weighed to convert tonnage into rewards]?”

Changing or retrofitting bins needs an initial level of investment. But some councils avoid this by using special sacks that can be traced back to individual homes, a sticker system or reward residents based on communal, rather than individual, effort.

New bins can also be part of an improved collection service, which makes it challenging to determine whether increases in recycling rates are down to the new service or the rewards themselves.

Phillip Ward, former director of local government at WRAP, questioned the DCLG’s investment in reward schemes on the grounds that there is not yet enough evidence they work.

In a comment on the MRW website, he said: “It seems a cavalier basis on which to invest a lot more money; a philosophical punt rather than a policy.”

Indeed, resource minister Lord de Mauley has recently announced that Defra will not be publishing interim results from its reward fund trials until later this year.

The most recent report commissioned by Defra on the issue dates back in 2006, and said that external factors “have caused a significant degree of difficulty in being able to accurately determine the specific impacts directly attributable to the offer of an incentive”.

“It seems a cavalier basis on which to invest a lot more money; a philosophical punt rather than a policy.”

The 2006 report also said that, although incentives can be a useful tool, councils should consider what their barriers to higher recycling rates are before choosing a solution. This could include changes to services or infrastructure.

Analysis of Defra’s figures by one industry insider compares the performance in Windsor and Maidenhead with that in statistically similar South Oxfordshire and Guildford. These councils have both invested in improved recycling systems, and have significantly better recycling rates.

So although Windsor and Maidenhead’s rates have been boosted as a result of its rewards scheme, this may be partly because of new blue bin collections. What could prove more effective is an overhaul of collection services.

The LGA’s recent review echoes Defra’s view that one size does not fit all, and reward schemes must be designed with the localdemographics and housing stock in mind.

It also said: “Incentive schemes may offer a short-term boost to household recycling, but need to be employed in combination with other measures such as outreach and communications activities in order to result in longer term behavioural change.”

It is because of this need for long-lasting behavioural change that some campaigners oppose rewards schemes.

Tim Burns from charity Waste Watch told MRW that rewarding people for behaviour you want them to value as a community activity may have the opposite effect. The schemes also encourage people to produce more recyclable material rather than simply preventing waste.

The LGA emphasises that incentives have to be backed by outreach campaigns, and these need to be repeated regularly in order to reinforce positive behaviour.

Whatever the philosophical doubts, it seems that reward schemes do work to a certain extent, given their continued popularity with some councils. There also appears to be a small slice of increased recycling emerging that is attributable to the schemes.

For instance, in Windsor and Maidenhead, there is a marginal increase in recycling compared with households not engaged in the scheme, according to their figures.

This raises some interesting questions: is the margin seen in all councils using incentives? Is the margin of increase created by rewards worth the investment compared with other interventions? Do the margins last?

MRW looks forward to Defra’s report on trials due later this year, which should shed more light on the effectiveness and value for money on the carrot approach to recycling.

* Councils who gave figures of their DCLG funding for rewards schemes were: Barnet, Ealing, Bedford, Cornwall, Sunderland, North Tyneside, Sandwell, Bournemouth, Bath & North East Somerset, Windsor and Maidenhead, and Southend-on-Sea.

  • Additional reporting by Jay Sykes

Spotlight: Windsor and Maidenhead

After a trial in 2009, Windsor and Maidenhead launched its opt-in rewards scheme across 60,000 households in 2010 in partnership with Recyclebank ( It allows residents to earn points for recycling and redeem them at retailers such as Marks & Spencer and Boots.

In November 2012, Recyclebankclaimed that councils piloting its incentive scheme were improving their recycling rates faster than the national average ( Household recycling in England had improved by 1.5 percentage points in a year while Windsor & Maidenhead council achieved a 4.5-point improvement.

In April, the council announced that residents would be able to earn points for separating and recycling their food waste. Greenredeem took over Recyclebank in April 2013, but MRW understands that contracts with existing clients, including Windsor and Maidenhead, are unaffected.

Spotlight: Birmingham

Birmingham City Council, England’s largest, started a trial recycling scheme offering Nectar points in September 2011. The trial involved two wards, Bourneville and Erdington ( 8618887.article).

The aim was to boost paper recycling in particular. Every time residents who had signed up put out paper recycling boxes, they received 25 Nectar points to be redeemed at a range of stores, including Argos, Homebase and Sainsbury’s. A spokesman for the council told MRW the trial was successful, with an overall 10% increase in recycling in the two pilot wards.

The council has plans to roll out incentives for all 40 wards, funded with money from the Weekly Collection Support Scheme. No decision has been made on whether Nectar will be used, but a procurement process for a scheme is in the pipeline.

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