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The industry can transform its public image

Margaret Bates

When faced with headlines such as ”Waste chiefs deny bin microchips are spies”, “Fortnightly bin collections spark rat plague” and “Nine bins for every home as EU moves to control council rubbish collections”, it is difficult sometimes to know whether to laugh or cry.

The frustration comes from the fact that, so often, the headlines are both hysterical and misleading, if not downright inaccurate, and there is very little recourse to get these stories corrected or retracted.

In a sense, recycling is the victim of its own success, with the number of media stories proliferating in the last two decades as waste collection services have evolved to divert more useful materials out of landfill. As the most visible frontline council service, waste collection is a popular and emotive subject and rubbish and recycling stories can make compelling headlines, particularly on slow news days. This is unlikely to change now that the media has understood the public appetite for stories on this topic.

One area that I think could be better explored is the concept of individual responsibility. Too often stories and news reports about littering, fly-tipping and overflowing bins focus more on how council service changes or household waste recycling centres charging regimes might be to blame but fail to make the connection that it is often down to the behaviour of an individual.

As recycling become part of our everyday behaviour, market research suggested that people were interested in what happened to their recycling – the ‘transformational’ element. This was recognised in the first iteration of WRAP’s Recycle Now campaign which used transformation imagery, including cans being turned into parts of cars or planes, and leaves and grass cuttings into compost, under the campaign slogan of “Recycle Now: the possibilities are endless”. Getting this message across is just as relevant today but making what are effectively industrial processes sexy is challenging – maybe we need more iconic ‘big brand’ stories like Apple’s recycling robot Liam, which got a lot of coverage.

For every good recycling story however (and that aren’t enough of these), there are always other stories such as the 2013 Daily Mail’s “Recycling con: Millions of tons end up in landfill as officials admit success is exaggerated”.

This was on the back of MRF contamination rates and raises an important issue about quality of recycling and the role of technology versus the role of the householder. However, the overall suggestion that the UK public has been lied to by the establishment, and the recycling process stops once waste has been collected from the doorstep, does not encourage a mature discussion about why quality recycling is important and how we can ‘collectively’ achieve it.

With much more tech savvy generations coming through, there is the opportunity to get some positive messages out around clever technology and to tap into the growing interest in all things digital and interactive. Too often there is the perception that the science side of things is dull and too complicated and won’t appeal to a mass audience. However, the BBC’s hugely popular science show Tomorrow’s World ran for 38 years, and every so often there are calls to bring it back, so perhaps we need to revisit the concept.

With particularly visible topics, such as packaging, there are also more stories now that tackle the issue from a more rounded perspective. For example, last year’s story in the Independent – “Disposable coffee cup recycling breakthrough turns paper cups into ‘durable’ resin” – is a good explanation of the issues and challenges surrounding coffee cup recycling.

Fortunately, the more sensationalist approach adopted by some of the national newspapers is not evident to the same extent in the national and regional broadcast media, where the approach tends to be more balanced and thoughtful. Local media coverage is a different ball game; because waste collection is one of only direct ways in which we as residents engage with our local council, any changes or problems will dominate the local news headlines.

I think many companies still shy away from engaging with the media because of the risk of negative headlines and messages. However, it is only by getting out there repeatedly that we will improve awareness and change negative perceptions and behaviour. As a sector, we need to stand up to and answer the negative stories and be even more proactive and creative in pushing more good news stories and using social media much more effectively. Younger generations are trawling the ether for images and videos for both educational and leisure purposes and as a sector we could make more of this.

So when the next ‘spies/rats/bubonic plague in bins’ story comes out, take heart. We have a great story to tell and while it is not always an easy task, it’s worth it!

Margaret Bates is a president of the Chartered Institution for Wastes Management



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