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The art of gentle persuasion

Sarah Ottaway

The extent of the positive response that a well-executed communications project can receive still surprises me – but I have learned that trying to influence behaviour can lead to unintended outcomes.

Even after 10 years working in the field of behaviour change, the extent of the positive response that a well-executed communications project can receive still surprises me – but at the same time I’ve learned that trying to influence behaviour can lead to interesting and sometimes unintended outcomes.

Our recent work at a large development of flats in Doncaster provided an opportunity to trial a new procedure to avoid contamination and help overcome long-term issues surrounding the misuse of recycling bins throughout the site.

The new procedures we implemented included clear and direct information sent to the households using the “offending” bin stores; a quicker turnaround of contaminated bins by recycling and refuse crews; and sustained, regular, interaction with the management company, resident groups and the local authority.

changing collections

changing collections


While not our largest project, the work yielded positive results well beyond our expectations. Not only did contamination reduce to zero most weeks, but recycling bins which were once empty are now regularly full with clean recycling. A surprising outcome to a challenging situation.

This project reminded me that often, simply giving residents’ clear information, and showing them that we’re taking the time and effort to manage their waste, can be all that’s needed to turn things around. On reflection, I believe that reminding residents what can be recycled, as part of the information we sent to households in this case, provided a transient population (many of the residents only live in the flats for a short period of time) with a useful guide to their services, which they may not have had the opportunity to learn elsewhere.

Not only this, but just encouraging some residents to begin using these bins properly demonstrates the correct behaviour to others, which allows it to quickly become a social norm– thereby increasing recycling volumes.

Following on the theme of combating contamination with a few simple actions, we recently introduced new procedures at two of our household collection contracts, with a key objective to encourage collection crews to play their important role in tackling contamination.

We sometimes find a degree of apathy among collection crews when it comes to helping tackle contamination and I believe this stems from a perception that “nothing ever happens” as a result of their efforts to report issues. Unfortunately, this apathy creates a cycle of less reporting and therefore less action - supporting incorrect behaviours by residents, which in turn effects material quality and potentially service performance.

When developing new procedures to tackle these household recycling contamination challenges, we made sure that they included a feedback mechanism to the crews via new channels, so that they could see action being taken from their efforts.

The success of this system has been dependent on involving the crews at each stage of it’s development, from gathering their feedback on current procedures, and their experience of issues, to inputting into the content of the new procedure and resident-educational materials, as well as running workshops to bring them fully up to speed with the new procedure and the expectations of everyone involved.

Since these new procedures were put in place, crew members have been kept up to speed with what’s happening, either through individual updates on their reports, or by interacting with staff who visit residents. As a result, we’ve seen a high level of reporting and, in one service, the volume of contamination reporting has increased fourfold since the introduction of this initiative. This helps us to engage and educate residents based on this data, improve customer service and, in turn, improve the use of the recycling service.

A larger scale example of the positive effect of public engagement can be found in the new services we introduced in East Devon this year – which involved working closely in partnership with East Devon District Council, to develop and deliver a three-weekly refuse and enhanced recycling service across the district in 2017.

Although a number of similar service changes in the past have been met with negativity from concerned residents, fearful that less frequent residual collections and enhanced source segregation will be to their detriment, these concerns have widely failed to materialise in East Devon.

In fact, instead of concern and disengagement, we’ve seen an increase in the amount of recyclables being put out for collection well beyond initial expectations, with reports showing a 45% increase on the same period of time in 2016. We’ve also seen very few requests for additional bins from residents struggling with their new residual waste capacity.

I believe that this was the result of clear, proactive, strong and consistent communications long before the changes were introduced. Another key contributor, in my opinion, was a small-scale trial of the new service, which took place more than a year before the introduction of the full service. Not only did this trial help to shape the service, but it also enabled us to draw on the results in communications collateral. This meant we could not just say, but demonstrate, that the service worked for all families, no matter their size or circumstance – helping to overcome the fear of the unknown associated with such a significant change.

All of these projects have in common a robust planning process, where objectives have been clearly defined from the outset, and all stakeholders engaged throughout – with their input encouraged and valued. As part of this, we have ensured that everyone involved is fully aware of their role in the project, in order to make a positive contribution to the outcome.

For example, Contact Centre staff in East Devon were briefed on the new contamination procedures and so they were prepared for an increase in customer contact and potential changes to the way these calls were handled. Additionally, each project has been closely monitored throughout its roll-out, to ensure any issues were resolved quickly; to determine whether our objectives have been achieved; and ascertain whether or not there have been additional benefits we weren’t expecting.

Although we tend to focus on operations and hard systems for delivering major change, the examples above illustrate the importance and effectiveness of the “softer” elements of communication and engagement – which with planning, care and sustained effort, form a vital element to affecting successful change.

Sarah Ottaway is National recycling manager at Suez

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