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Incentives are not reward enough

Serco is to be congratulated on engaging in the debate about incentivising household recycling. Its report this week follows the interim review of Defra’s reward and recognition scheme by Brook Lyndhurst in January in fleshing out our understanding of the impact of recycling incentives.

Schemes of a sort go back a decade but there is little hard evidence of their effect on recycling. This new report is a valuable addition.

Serco’s research partner is Eunomia, which recognises up front that its sample is small, mainly because changes to individual schemes over time degrade the data. In fact, only five unnamed councils are included because of the validity of the data (Defra had eight councils). 

That incentive schemes are not the panacea for boosting England’s flagging recycling rate is one of the key conclusions, as we report on page 4. Effective communications campaigns around incentives can get through to residents, but the effect on recycling cannot easily be justified on grounds of greater material returns or cost benefits - although low-cost schemes might be worthwhile, Eunomia suggests. 

Residents questioned by Serco in a wider survey said that more commingled methods (42%) and wheeled bins (41%) would have a far greater effect on their habits than incentives (5%). 

Eunomia director James Fulford said that some forms of ‘pay as you throw’ were likely to work, citing “strong and reliable evidence” for its efficacy in other countries. The UK already had isolated examples, but the report warns the issue is “controversial and easily misrepresented”.

But the real worry for the authors and their sponsor is a strong sense that England has lost its way in relation to national waste strategy. Efforts to get the graph of recycling rates pointing up again needs a debate, they say, resulting in serious and radical solutions. That will take more than offering vouchers for the local leisure centre.

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