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Where there's a will, there's a way to recycle

Much has been said and written about the challenges that councils face in achieving the 50% household recycling target set for 2020, let alone the 70% for 2030 suggested by the European Commission this summer.

Across all industries, marketing and communications budgets are often cut in times of trouble. ReFood’s commercial director Philip Simpson suggests that cuts to council marketing budgets “are partly responsible for the stagnation in recycling rates”.

Nevertheless, councils need to raise those rates, and the answer could be to better engage with householders so that recycling becomes second nature. Joanna Dixon, community recycling officer at Croydon Council, said that better engagement is “absolutely key” to improving recycling rates.

“There isn’t necessarily a lot of money available to put into collection systems, so it’s about maximising what you are getting out of the system you already have,” she said.

In 2011, Croydon targeted 698 households which were not recycling much, if anything. Dixon said: “We analysed a lot of data and identified those households [with low or non-existent recycling rates] and then knocked on doors to find out why - was there a problem? Did they not have the equipment? Were they unaware of the changes?” 

Collections were monitored after the properties had been visited, and Dixon said that participation in recycling jumped from 0% to 69%. The project went on to be a winner at last year’s National Recycling Awards.

The ‘educational’ visits were coupled with the threat of £80 penalty fares for non-compliance in a carrot-and-stick approach, something that Dixon feels can play an important part in encouraging more recycling.

“It’s about achieving a balance. If your education is effective you don’t need to enforce but, at the same time, enforcement strengthens the education method. A lot of education has been successful, but underlying that with an enforcement notice is very effective.”

But she conceded that some councils can be nervous about using enforcement methods.

Many people in the industry would agree with her, and several leading figures have privately indicated to MRW that a pay-as-you-throw system could be an answer but would be unacceptable in the current political climate. Nor is there a consensus about the benefits of incentive or reward schemes.

In February, service company Serco commissioned a report from Eunomia which suggested that recycling incentive schemes can have a positive impact but other approaches were likely to be more effective.

In Ealing, cabinet member for environtment and transport Bassam Mahfouz believes the ‘carrot’ has worked.

“Fining people might work if it is a really bad recycling area where they would fear the possibility of getting a penalty. But it is a very short-term solution, and those people would not be recycling for the right reason.”

Like Croydon, Ealing has concentrated initially on engaging residents who do not recycle enough. Mafhouz said: “If you look at residual waste in a black bag, a lot of that could be recycled. It’s about engaging with those individuals and saying ‘this is how you recycle’.”Households who did not recycle at all were targeted with visits, often by teams speaking the residents’ native language. Ealing has also embarked on more public ways to engage its residents, including the standard posters on buses and advertising, but also with a few more zany ideas.

Mahfouz explained: “We had a bench made out of recycled bottles and displayed a strawberry coming out of a light bulb to show people that food waste can be turned into electricity. But the most successful one was the recycled bottles outside the town hall.”

Last year, the council unveiled a 6m-tall tree made out of 900 recycled plastic bottles, with the message that the same number of bottles used in making the tree were consumed every two seconds in the UK. The message residents were given was to take two seconds out of their routine to recycle.

“It got on to CNN’s list of top Christmas trees around the world,” Mahfouz said. “We had an extra 563 tonnes of trees recycled as a result. It reached enough people that tree tonnage doubled.”

It is also possible to target people by using demographics, as Waste Awareness Wales discovered. The organisation created a model that broke the population down into segments such as ‘terraced families’, ‘low-income families’ and ‘well-off families’. This allowed councils to consider, among other things, what type of marketing communication methods should be used to reach specific groups.

Engaging people and educating them about the need to recycle is not just the responsibility of local authorities. Veolia’s chief corporate officer Robert Hunt said that a key part of the company’s waste management contracts is to forge closer links with the public. Like most waste management firms, Veolia allows the public and schoolchildren to visit its sites to help get the recycling method across.

Hunt said that, in his experience, most people were already aware of the need to recycle: “I think that poll results [by YouGov] are showing that people are getting it and want to do the right thing by recycling more.”

Allowing people to see the end product of their recycling efforts as a resource is the most effective method of encouraging people to recycle, Hunt said: “There is a huge benefit in regarding stuff as new product rather than just watching it disappear [in a truck].”

Products branded with slogans such as ‘I used to be a plastic pen’ also help to drive the message home. “That sort of thing speaks louder than any words I could put together,” Hunt said.

The ultimate aim of engaging with people about recycling is to adapt their behaviour so that it becomes a habit rather than a chore. Dr Heather Gainforth, a behavioural scientist at the University College London (UCL), is confident that people’s behaviour can change so that recycling becomes ingrained in their system, but only if they are given the right tools as well as the right message.

She said: “Recycling, or any sustainable practice, requires behaviour change at multiple levels within a system.” Gainforth points to the results of a ‘recycling intervention’ on the UCL campus where students in one house were given more recycling options, such as a variety of bins. The results were positive.

“We found that people were motivated to engage in recycling, but there is a moment-by-moment intention that fluctuates based on their opportunity to recycle, their knowledge of where the bins are and how to use the bins.”
In other words, people must have the opportunity and the necessary tools to participate.

She added: “You can have the most motivation in the world, but you can’t actually engage in the behaviour if you do not have the opportunity.”

Question of Aesthetics

In April, researchers at the University of Exeter, in partnership with Coca-Cola Enterprises (CCE), studied the behaviour of 20 households in the UK and France to understand the barriers to recycling (). They found that the location and appearance of waste containers played an important role in either incentivising or discouraging the separate collection of recyclables.

The report said: “Participants argued that more physical space is often needed to make recycling a viable activity, and they are not prepared to compromise the aesthetics of their home to make room for a recycling bin.”

Another barrier to recycling was that recyclables often had to travel from one room to another, and the likelihood of them being collected separately decreased if they had first ended up in a residual bin.

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