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Sector needs to put its case clearly

Sarah Ottaway

An individual’s perception of the recycling sector is fuelled by a wide range of influences, including local and national media, social media, friends and family. While many of these can be channels for key messages, particularly during major changes to services, they can also be a destructive force.

Readers may have seen a recent example, from a mainstream tabloid newspaper which covered the supposed “farce” of Christmas recycling - pointing a finger of blame at local authorities which are simply trying to maintain material quality.

In order to combat this sort of coverage (which fails to explain any of the finer points of macro or even micro economics), and the negative impact this can have on material capture rates and contamination, the industry needs to help the public understand why we ask for materials to be put out in a particular way, or why there are things which can’t be recycled.

Few people enjoy simply being told what to do. In my area of the business, I’ve spent a lot of time speaking to the public and always ensure that I explain to people why they’ve been asked to do, or not do, something by their local authority – which often leads them to a moment of understanding, and subsequent acceptance, of whatever recycling system they are a part of.

Indeed, this journey of acceptance was evidenced most prominently in 2014, when Suez carried out a “Citizen’s Juries” project with Keep Britain Tidy, where we managed to convert two rooms full of inner-city reluctant recyclers into recycling gurus, by sharing and explaining the ‘whys’ of recycling – gradually building a full picture of the industry and the challenges we face.

The problem is that none of us have the resources to have this one-on-one conversation with every inhabitant of the UK.

Our industry needs residents to understand that they play a role within a much larger system and that what they put out to be recycled has a purpose, or a customer, at its destination. We also need residents to trust that whatever recycling system they are presented with has been designed with an end product in mind and a customer, or customers, for that particular product. To do this, we need to take the time to show residents what happens to the material once it’s left the kerbside and why we collect it like we do.

This isn’t something which will happen overnight, and it will take more than just a press release or a push on social media. It’s something that, as an industry, we all need to collaborate on – by being transparent about our processes and, wherever possible, the materials we produce and the customers we serve.

This isn’t something which will happen overnight, and it will take more than just a press release or a push on social media. It’s something that, as an industry, we all need to collaborate on – by being transparent about our processes and, wherever possible, the materials we produce and the customers we serve across all of our communication mediums.

Of course, this shouldn’t come at the expense of being concise and to-the-point, as the majority of residents understandably aren’t as enthusiastic about waste as we are.

A few extra words to give context to our requests is often all that is needed – only if done in a sustained and consistent way. For example, last year, one of Suez’s local authority partners updated the educational materials which collection crews leave with households who have presented contaminated recycling at the kerbside.

After discussing this point about context, the authority produced an updated version to explain why we couldn’t collect recycling containers with broken glass or sharp objects. The additional text simply read: “Broken glass or sharp objects were found. Your recycling is sorted by hand and these objects can cause injury.” These 19 additional words gave a clear explanation why it wasn’t possible to collect the container on this occasion and gave sufficient information to enable the resident to choose whether to accept the request for themselves.

Most members of the public don’t think about how their waste and recycling is collected, or what happens to it afterwards, and this text helped to paint a brief picture, while also appealing to most peoples’ good nature in respect of care for others.

Suez has a very transparent attitude to its operations and is always willing to show journalists, media, stakeholders and special interest groups around any of its operations in order to build understanding of the systems “behind the scenes”. We will continue with this activity and the more our industry is prepared to open up and invite people in, the more people we will win over and the more advocates we’ll produce.

While there will always be the minority who won’t read or digest this information, the majority of the public do want to do the right thing, and by helping them understand why we’re asking them to do things in a certain way, they can make their own informed choice, and in turn we will receive better quality material, presented in the right way and on the right day.

Sarah Ottaway, national recycling manager at Suez

 

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