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Communications need a personal touch

The supply chain is well managed, all the mechanisms are in place, but that last yard is where it can all go wrong; this is true of almost any industry. For those of us in the materials, waste and recycling world, that last yard can be where people decide to sort waste correctly – for landfill or recycling – and bring it from inside their home on to their doorstep.

The last yard is a challenge because it involves people’s behaviour and, as the saying goes, “change would be easy… if it wasn’t for the people”. So how do we fix it?

Insights from behavioural science are extremely powerful and can make operations work a lot more efficiently. Most significantly, the techniques of behavioural science give us the opportunity to improve the range and amount of recycling by households who already recycle in a predictable way, along with the quality of materials left at kerbside and the number of households who start recycling.

How do we know this? In a recent experi­ment, working with Bristol Waste and Bristol City Council, our companies used a single leaf­let with language informed by behavioural psychology to increase the level of food waste recycling. It comprises many common behav­ioural techniques, is inexpensive, proven to work and is scalable. It adds up to a compelling case for using behavioural analysis and design whenever we need to communicate with resi­dents about waste and recycling.

The leaflet (above) went through the doors of 61 homes observed to be doing only dry recy­cling: they had not put out any food waste. The people represent the 50% of Bristol households not using the food waste caddy they had received a few years previously; they are the difficult to reach.

The results were swift. The number of house­holds persuaded to use the caddy rose 16% in the first week. Over two weeks, 28% of the tar­get households recycled their food waste at least once.

The leaflet was designed with straightfor­ward and vivid the language, in contrast with the jargon and abstraction that we expect from council and contractor communications. And there are other things going on, including:

  • Personalisation and implied observation

Handwriting the names of the collection crew and the house number on the leaflet makes the householder aware that real people are making contact with them. Why is this important? Our personal reputation is a strong, deep-seated driver of behaviour, and is challenged by being observed by oth­ers or even the implication that we are being observed.

  • Localisation: local round name

For most of human history, we have lived in small groups. We still associate with, and respond to, small, local messages. The local collection round is all the residents see of the waste collection service – for the contractor it is a vast complex supply chain but for the resi­dent it is a few minutes once a week.

  • Reciprocation

The leaflets begin with a ‘thank you’, and in no place do they ‘tell off ’ the audience for poor behaviour. It is, in effect, an amnesty. Being nice to someone is likely to get similar behav­iour in return.

The experiment was informed by some in-home research, where residents walked us through how they deal with all types of waste in their home. One thing we realised was that people who recycle well often have a ‘holding’ space where they keep things before putting them outside: a pile of newspapers behind the sofa or food waste in a bowl in the kitchen emp­tied outside daily – or hourly. It is rarely docu­mented and was unknown to us beforehand.

Another useful insight was finding that peo­ple who already separate their food waste talk happily of not having a “slimy, smelly” kitchen bin any more. This was not why they started to do it, but it is part of the reason they remain committed. We think these are useful insights, primarily because learning from people who already ‘do the right thing’ is helpful when working out how to influence others.

What struck us most strongly is how such information and more did not seem to be reflected in existing communications that try to increase recycling participation. Most exist­ing communication tells people the benefits of recycling. But we do not try to change residents’ minds or offer them a ‘rational’ incentive such as a financial reward. Instead, we worked with the grain of human nature.

These insights scaled up could mean that crossing the last yard will lead to better recy­cling performance.

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