To be honest, dealing with individual members of the public can be frustrating at times. Those of us with experience on the ‘front line’ of municipal recycling collection services will have undoubtedly heard the phrase, “I pay my council tax so…” in the belief that doing so absolves individuals of responsibility for their own behaviour.
Overlooking the fact that only a fraction of the council tax contributes towards waste and recycling collections, there is a worrying perception among many residents that recycling is a voluntary activity.
Each of us, as consumers, make numerous decisions every day which affect the waste and recycling we present for collection – in fact, the structure of our entire industry is based around the decisions made by individuals at the point they discard material, whether they are at home, work or on the go. So why is there so little emphasis on consumer responsibility for waste?
At the recent Local Authority Recycling Advisory Committee conference, Eunomia director Dominic Hogg was asked this very question. A key issue he highlighted was the lack of consumer responsibility in the EU’s draft circular economy package, with the emphasis being placed instead on producers and industry to take responsibility.
This is disappointing when we have seen recently how small changes can make a big difference – such as the introduction of the carrier bag charge, where a small financial nudge has resulted in a national change in behaviour.
“Effective resource management is a joint responsibility between industry, producers and consumers. A truly circular economy cannot be achieved unless everyone plays their part”
With recent political changes, could there be an opportunity for a shift in stance? At the recent Conservative Party conference fringe session, hosted by Suez, it was reassuring to hear the new resources minister Therese Coffey acknowledge the need to “get people, whether they are in an urban environment or the countryside, to recognise their responsibility”. But what would such responsibility look like?
Capturing food waste
Some think that pay-as-you-throw (PAYT) is the obvious direction, where charging for services based on the weight of recycling and waste presented would force consumers to think about what they produce and where it goes. But would we be able to take the public on such a giant leap from current policy to PAYT, without widespread resistance? We certainly know that, historically, there has been little political appetite for such an approach.
I believe that, to achieve behavioural change on such a scale, we need to take it one step at a time. A good first step would be for national policy to recognise that effective resource management is a joint responsibility between industry, producers and consumers.
A truly circular economy cannot be achieved unless everyone plays their part. This would demonstrate support from the Government and would, at least, support the industry in our sometimes challenging dialogue with householders.
There could even be a national framework for services, following in the successful footsteps of the Welsh and Scottish governments, but with a stronger stance on the frequency or capacity of refuse collections and the capture of food waste.
Where local authorities have successfully introduced changes to their refuse collections, this is creating a growing body of evidence to support the move, while regular food waste collections are widely acknowledged as being crucial to such changes to ensure regular collections of the putrescible waste.
Communications should and will continue to play a significant part in behaviour change, but we cannot rely solely on this area to create significant change without at least the support of national policy. Furthermore, sustained communications campaigns are not, by any means, an easy low-cost option themselves.
Having a clear national policy framework, which aims to firmly nudge the issue of consumer responsibility and associated behavioural change, could also remove the inconsistency of political will at a local level because it would enable councils to base proposed changes on central policy, with an evidence base to demonstrate the benefit in investing taxpayers’ money.
For too long, politicians and our industry have skirted around the issue of consumer responsibility. But in order for us to succeed at all levels – whether that is reducing costs or contamin-ation, bucking the stagnation of recycling rates or boosting the production of quality recyclate – it is vital that the public understand the part they have to play.
Sarah Ottaway is the national recycling manager of Suez