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| be Waste Wise | December 5, 2022

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Behaviour Change and Recycling Contamination – Insights and Reflections

Recycling Bin



With the quality of recyclables (not just the quantity) now fully recognised as an important part of the circular economy, influencing citizen’s behaviour to help ensure the right materials end up in the right place, are vital to any successful system, which is why this was the subject of a recent webinar I chaired on behalf of be Waste Wise. Joining me were behavioural specialists Stephen Bates (Resources and Waste Advisory Group), Gemma Scott (Resource London), and my colleague Sarah Ottaway (SUEZ). 

Together we set out to explore the issue in some detail, looking at contamination trends, common mistakes, possible interventions, and several success stories and thanks to the full engagement of the live audience we could explore many issues through both audience polls and the huge number of questions raised for the panel, which we attempted to address in the hour-long session.

Setting the scene….

Each of the panellists provided great examples of the work they’d undertaken to encourage positive recycling behaviours. We heard about Sarah’s recycling team’s mix of activities focused on influencing residents by working with local collection crews to identify those presenting the wrong materials and using a clear communications process (stickers and letters) to educate and nudge their behaviour in the right direction.

Then there was Steve and his work both locally and internationally, (including his successful campaigns in Cyprus) which featured effective messaging, clear yet joined up media campaigns (from on-street bins and directional labels to regional radio and door to door advisory teams). Finally, we heard from Gemma about the in-depth approach to understanding residents living in flats and apartments in London and using their feedback to influence the development of effective communications and engagement.

Each of our panellists demonstrated many different approaches to the all too familiar problem of the wrong materials in the wrong bin/container, but a number of key themes emerged, both in terms of their real-world experiences and insights, but also from their responses to the vast number of questions we had from the audience, many of which we couldn’t adequately address in the time available. 

So what were these key themes?

1. Listen!

Understanding the needs of your key stakeholders and those you’re trying to influence is of paramount importance for ensuring your campaign/intervention has a chance of succeeding. Many unsuccessful campaigns chose the wrong message or media for the target audience because they failed to identify who the contaminators were and why they were contaminating.

For Gemma, simply using the word ‘rubbish’ instead of more industry-specific terms which are often used, such as ‘general waste’ or ‘non-recyclable’ waste helped those using communal facilities in apartment blocks to better understand what they were being asked to do. While Sarah’s team listened to their collection crews’ experiences as part of the development process and kept them regularly updated on actions that were being taken with households on their collection routes, to maintain and even increase their levels of engagement with the process. 

2. Behaviour change is worth the investment!

Both Steve and Sarah shared their experiences of providing measurable impacts of their intervention campaigns, as a means of proving their value. Steve’s work for Warwickshire County Council, encouraging residents to recycle their food waste saved the authority over £900,000 per year as a result (from reduced landfill disposal costs), delivering over a 1,000% return on their investment, something any financial manager is going to be interested in! While Sarah has been able to demonstrate the benefits of resident engagement on reducing the amount of time collection crews spend dealing with contamination by over 600 hours – a huge saving in time and money! These metrics are really important for garnering political and managerial support for communications campaigns and their budgets and were openly identified by the webinar audience in our first poll. According to those dialled in live, increased costs (44%) and operational inefficiency (37%) were the key known and identified impacts of contamination on their services and were the main reasons for considering interventions.  

3. Shared Responsibility!

Our final poll question asked the audience who was ultimately responsible for the contamination and perhaps unsurprisingly consumers received the largest share (61%) of the vote, something which sparked quite a debate with our panellists. Gemma pointed out that there are numerous different influences when it comes to behaviour, and engaging with all stakeholders is essential to any successful intervention, from the brands and retailers that put packaging on the market to the landlords in the multi-occupancy housing, to the recycling service providers. And whilst Sarah and Steve didn’t disagree with Gemma, they did align themselves more with the audience in terms of believing that consumers are the ones who ultimately make the final decision about whether an item is recycled or not or which container to put it in!), and it’s their decisions which lead to the operational inefficiencies and the other challenges which come with contamination and incorrectly presented recycling. 

Progress continues…

Behaviour (and behaviour change) is a topic which underpins everything we do in terms of recycling and the future of resource management. Not only can interventions, campaigns and engagement programmes help to increase recycling and reduce waste but increasingly understanding consumer attitudes, their perceived barriers, and their actual behaviours will be critical to underpinning a shift to a more circular economy, one where reuse and repair are more core, and where we buy services not products. 

The lively debate, engaged audience and success stories presented, suggest that there is a huge amount of interest in the topic, and a great deal of hope for what the right campaigns can achieve. However, it also highlighted that an hour just really isn’t long enough to do the topic justice, and we look forward to returning to this topic and reflecting on other interventions and campaigns in the coming months.

In the meantime, I would like to thank the panellists for their time, humility and insights, and the audience for taking part in the polls and for asking so many valuable questions. Plus of course Sarah for pulling together an early draft of this blog, whilst the debate was still at the forefront of our minds.

If this blog post has sparked an interest in the topic, then you can watch the webinar here.


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