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Householders are responsible too

Sometimes I hover over my recycling bin with a piece of packaging in hand facing indecision about it being the right kind of plastic or if it would be of value to the recycling industry.

Considering I am one of the only designers who also is chartered by the CIWM, you would think I would know. So if I am having such a moment, what about everyone else?

Last year, Coca-Cola Enterprises and the University of Exeter’s report Unpacking the Household: Exploring the dynamics of household recycling looked into our throwaway habits, and came up with some fundamental problems that hinder the efforts of those recapturing material streams for reprocessing. It seems that our houses are not designed well enough to make recycling an everyday habit and we suffer confusion around the complexity of things that we put in our numerous bins.

This is partly through the advances in technology used for sorting in MRFs. Laminated packaging was once a ‘nono’ yet now it is welcomed – but only if your council collects it. Mainly the confusion is due to the technical nature and design specification of packaging – advances in recycling systems are always playing catch-up.

So how, as a designer, could I help to make this system become more effective? I throw things away in black and green bins on a regular basis, giving me user insight from the household perspective.

But what effect do my actions have on the rest of the system? Using the methodology of The Great Recovery and our ‘insight focused’ design process, it was time for a day of bin training on the streets of Kensington and Chelsea.

For my shift, I joined Danny and his team on the mixed bin bag pick-up opinion round. It uses the K7, a 50/50 split truck, which compacts recyclate on one side and waste destined for incineration or landfill on the other. Danny has been working in the industry for more than 30 years. He is full of stories and insight on the realities of the waste system at this important point of contact between households, council and the industry.

I found that habits are set by the structures around us. Rubbish bags were brought up to the streets, typically from mansion block basement bin stores by the team members working ahead of the trucks. Bags were piled together in regular places along the streets so the truck made fewer stops, making it efficient and better for traffic.

Due to street layouts and housing types, the connection between the rubbish generated and the household is broken. Those who collect the waste see the mistakes people make and are in the best position to police the system and influence householders.

But if we cannot track the flow from household to bin bag, how can we go back to tell people their recycling had to be incinerated because it had too many banana skins in it?

Each of London’s 33 collection authorities has its own take on material collection systems. Each pick up different materials, use different containers in different colours and collect on different days with different regularity. No wonder householders get confused.

When you work fast on a shift, assessing the bags as you pick them up, you get good at spotting contamination and err on the side of caution, meaning that much has to be diverted from recycling. In this one shift, we estimated that half of the recycling bags were contaminated enough to remove them from the recycling stream.

Households had no colour allocation for ‘black bin’ rubbish, and often used carrier bags or white bin bags, which led to difficulty because the recycling bags were also white but slightly more transparent. Some were black which, I was told, often hid a multitude of sins like half-empty tins of paint.

We know that between the user deciding they are finished with a product and the producer, manufacturer or material recoverer picking up the product and taking it on a more circular route, there need to be some really good connections. But there is widespread confusion and failure to use the system effectively.

Changing the system to be more accountable, with better identification and transparency, would go a long way to improve the quality of material recovered. A nationwide system of coloured bags or containers to clearly denote what is and is not recycling would significantly increase the quantities of recycling. Adding a level of policing by those who work the system every day would highlight households who recurrently contaminate.

A straw poll at a recent waste webinar found over 86% thought that waste producers (manufacturers, designers) should be responsible for waste. That goes for households too.

Many thanks to Sita UK for my training, and to Danny and his team for giving me a seat in their cab and answers to all my annoying questions

Sophie Thomas is director of The RSA Great Recovery

The Great Recovery is an RSA project and is supported by Innovate UK.

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