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Behaviour change is key to recycling

Recycling ought to be the envy of many other industries because, I think, it is only going to grow.

There are some issues that can affect prices and limit that growth in the short term but, looked at over a longer period, the closed loop and circular economy must grow and so the industry will expand with it.

It is clear that we are moving from the linear and transactional economy to a recycling economy, and it is sometimes difficult to see what is happening when you are living in the middle of a changing paradigm. But that is certainly what is happening and the industry needs to keep the faith in its own future success.

There will be bumps along the way, of course, but I believe things will generally be positive.  Just consider the long-term changes in attitudes. Some 20 years ago, recycling was seen as something done by quirky, eco-hippy types and very committed people – now most of us barely think about it. It is accepted as normal.

We are increasingly designing-out waste and making things from reusable materials. You can even take recycled textiles and remove polyester threads to reuse them in other garments, in an example of the closed loop economy.

But why does the industry keep such a low profile? One of the biggest issues facing it is salience. So much of what the waste management industry does is not very visible, and people put materials out for recycling without knowing much about what happens to them after that.  

Thinking back to my childhood, when they went through the ‘window’ in Play School and visited a factory or something I was fascinated by it. If more people visited an MRF, they would see the amazing things done with waste. The recycling industry has a great story to tell. It needs a Tomorrow’s World-style presentation to get that across because if the industry had a higher profile, it would help to convince more people about the need for recycling.

If people see what can be done with waste they will feel guilty about throwing stuff away.

Within the business world, a number of things have driven changing attitudes, and the landfill tax was the trigger that made companies think about sustainability because there was a clear cost attached to sending material for landfilling.

The landfill tax was a very interesting example of a legislative change making people think about sustainability. In general people do not like waste, and there is public pressure from those who, for example, do not feel good about the excess plastic packaging they get from supermarkets.

Initiatives like Marks & Spencer’s Shwopping with Oxfam show the way by letting customers donate garments in its stores to cut the amount of unwanted clothing going to landfill.

Shwop drop

I came into the sustainability field originally as a marine biologist, where I was aware I would be spending my career telling people that if they kept on catching fish there would be no more fish, so I wanted to get into the communications and campaigning side.

Before setting up Futerra, I was environment manager for what was then London Transport, where I was possibly a bit ahead of my time in the late 1990s in trying to get sustainable procurement for London Underground.

But things have changed. Ten years ago companies would ask how they could deal with sustainability in the context of their business; now they ask how they can organise their business in the context of sustainability.

Ultimately, though, it is not the infrastructure that will make recycling a success but changing human behaviour. If the industry can help to do that by explaining itself better, it should grow yet further.  

Ed Gillespie will be a keynote speaker in the Circular Economy Connect theatre at RWM, arranged through the London Speaker Bureau. His presentation on 15 September is on ‘Why is selling sustainability still such a struggle?’   

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