Recycling performance is a factor of what materials are targeted for collection, the level of public engagement and understanding, the frequency of residential participation, the quality of their participation, and the effectiveness of the sorting process at the kerb and at the MRF (materials recycling facility). But contamination can undermine any recycling service, making it more expensive to sort the materials, confusing residents about what materials to sort and store at home, and ultimately putting end market outlets at risk.

This webinar discussed common contaminants in recycling collections from a number of residential settings (suburbia, high-rise and rural), reflect on campaigns and programmes that have attempted to limit contamination, and consider what the future might look like under reforms to extended producer responsibility and the expected upturn in brand-led recycling-based communications.


While the panelists answered several audience questions during the live webinar, they could not respond to all the questions owing to time limitations. We have collated their responses to those questions here:

Will the use of a connected device to monitor contamination in bins, on the horizon that waste service providers would be willing to try?

The technology currently available can measure fill levels but the ability to identify different types of waste is yet to emerge for application in this context. In any case, once the wrong item has entered the bin, it’s too late so the technology would need to prevent this from happening in the first place. Also, the cost of such technology would likely render it unaffordable by most local authorities.

What was the time you spent with either residents or crews to enable the  behaviour change and what ongoing time have you allocated for refreshing their behaviours?

Stephen Bates: It’s not possible to quantify the time spent with residents. One doorstep engagement may only last five minutes but require weeks of preparation. Whereas a quick 20 minute unprepared brief with the collection crew could be transformative. What your question picks up on is the need for constant communication. It’s not a case of say once and never again. People forget and need to be reminded and even if they don’t forget, it’s easy for bad habits to rear their head. You don’t necessarily need the same level of intensity in communication but you should never stop talking completely. Think of CocaCola – who hasn’t tried or doesn’t know what it is? Hardly anyone yet each year they spent over $1billion advertising it!

Don’t forget as well that the constant communication is just as important for your collection crews as well as the residents – they are on the front line of this process and you need them feeling engaged and empowered. Regular communications with them are key.

Could the measures discussed in the webinar work across all waste types?

Sarah Ottaway: Yes – The 3 stage process that I discussed in the webinar is being used for garden waste and the process of engagement is also designed for refuse but yet to be deployed (this is more due to agreement on responsibility and resource then the process itself)

Do you think people’s attitudes/behaviours have changed during the current pandemic lockdowns? And, do you think our engagement with households also needs to change as a result? What about communications for householders in areas with low literacy/non-native language speakers?

Anecdotally we have been seeing better separated material and less contamination but the challenge will be to reinforce these behaviours once we get to a greater sense of normality, in an ideal world now is the time to give positive reinforcement to try and cement some of those behaviours.

For those who are not strong readers or where English isn’t a language, they can read we always use pictures in our comms to try and help.  We’ve also found that two approaches have been useful in different areas:

  1. Children are really useful as they often are the translators for their households – so when we’re targeting areas where we know language is a common issue, we’ve engaged during school holidays to increase the chances of children being home and who can help.
  2. We’ve worked with community engagement teams from other departments who have team members or support from people who are able to translate or can engage with key members of local communities to help get the message out.

How can you get the Council to engage and do this kind of communication in communal areas when they have very limited financial resources?

First, you have to undertake a financial assessment of the impact contamination is having and identify what organisation is bearing that burden? Is a housing association paying more for waste disposal than it needs to? Is it the local authority carrying the cost? Once you have this information, you can assign a meaningful budget to the interventions needed and who is the most appropriate body to make that investment.

This is a really coarse measure but is there a relationship between the success of behaviour change (though whatever scheme) and income of the residents being targeted? For example, by correlating house prices with behaviour change success would it be possible to predict where the largest impacts could be made?

There is a correlation between household income and the success of behaviour change. Very broadly speaking, lower-income households are harder to win over than middle and higher-income households – but it’s not quite as simple as that. Education level plays a part, as does a sense of community and you often find these lacking in areas of deprivation. But it is not possible to consider all poor areas to be bad recyclers – indeed, we have had some of the greatest success in terms of recycling increases in such areas although achieving this was not without challenge. In terms of overall impact, it is worth considering prioritising areas based upon the propensity to

  1. change behaviours in the first place and
  2. that change leading to the greatest gain in material capture.

As important as recycling is, we have to accept that for some people, there are a million other things more important for them and consider if it’s worth throwing money and resources to this group when less can be spent and more be gained in focusing upon others.

Has any work been done on a drop off effect over time? people become complacent, new residents move in who were not exposed to the initial measures, etc. can a time frame be discovered as to how often these measures need to be repeated and reinforced?

Stephen Bates: For the case study in Calderdale we monitored over several weeks to determine whether the change had been successful. But a longer-term study would be interesting and a valuable piece of research to aid planning on campaigns and general messages too.

Gemma Scott: For the London project we undertook waste monitoring at 6 weeks and at 6 months after the interventions were rolled out as we wanted to understand the impact on performance over time i.e. if it drops off. Whilst the performance improvement after 6 weeks was better than after 6 months. We found that the drop off over that time was negligible. Importantly, maintaining service quality at all times is key to maintaining performance. We visited the estates on a monthly basis to ensure that this was the case and rectified any issues found. Ultimately if you are making improvements on estates, you need to follow this up with regular site visits to ensure that service quality is maintained.

How do these learnings get applied to developing countries, where most collection and separation is done by informal collectors/ reclaimers?

It is not uncommon to find informal recycling systems being more efficient from a material-quality perspective compared to the complex systems we find in developed nations. There’s a couple of reasons for this.

  • The range of materials that enter the waste stream is far less so it is easier to separate materials into different streams.
  • Those that earn an income from recycling are involved in more of the process of collection and separation and so are more invested in it which helps to keep quality high.

The challenge is when these countries undergo waste sector reform and recycling transitions from informal to formal. The key here is to ensure that livelihoods are protected otherwise it’s all too easy to find ambitions are thwarted through opposition to the improvements being made.

  • Community-based waste management projects and home gardening projects are more effective to manage waste generation. What are the most suitable strategies to increase people’s participation?

In developed nations, the effect of community initiatives is dependent upon the sense of community that prevails. Where you have areas of highly transient populations (such as university towns) it is difficult to engage people to commit to their community because they don’t see it as their community – just a place to live. Where there is a community spirit then the key is to trigger interest and empower communities to take action, engaging with existing neighborhood organisations to encourage them but ultimately give them ownership of the initiatives they take. A reward is important but that reward should be recognition – something like PR in the regional press.

In developing nations, community initiatives are much more important as you often find that community plays a much more important role in society than it does in the west. Community leaders are revered people whose guidance is sought and whose advice is followed. So understanding community hierarchy is critical as is understanding the relationship between leaders and the local population. Take the time to engage and educate the community leaders and others will follow. This should be supported with tangible assistance – so if you’re encouraging a community clean up, provide the bags, pickers, and gloves….and make sure that the waste they collect is picked up by a truck on the day!

It is human nature to be a creature of habit – there have been constant changes over the years, trying to increase recycling. What is being done with the kids? Surely this must be an angle to form a new habit for the generation ahead?

One of four paradigms that relate to behaviour change in waste management is that ‘People do not like change’ (the other three being: ‘people are lazy, people do not trust government and people want to improve their lives – more information here if you are interested.

It is for this reason that we use the ‘nudge’ principal when changing behaviours; a small series of small steps that incrementally move one towards the desired behaviour. Children, of course, have a significant role to play in shaping the future and also have a great influence on the here and now. They have great empathy for the natural environment and arguably, a better understanding of their impact on it. These are virtues that need harnessing but in a controlled and strategic manner.

Over the past 10 years, recycling and related subjects have been removed from primary school curriculums. The Department for Education (in the UK) has pushed these topics into secondary school education under key stage 4 science (GCSE level) as follows:

Chemical & Allied Industries 

  •  Life cycle assessment and recycling to assess environmental impacts associated with all the stages of a product’s life
  • The viability of recycling of certain materials

WRAP, who previously provided excellent resource support for waste education across all age groups but particularly with primary schools, are today operating within more constrained parameters; financially and in terms of the resources they can provide. As such, they have shifted their primary educational support away from Primary Schools to GCSE learning to support the revised curriculum.

In the UK and elsewhere, there is today no structured curriculum-based learning available to all children; only those who have opted to study the subjects within which brief and limited content of the topics are included. Any education beyond these is dependent upon the desire and enthusiasm of individual headteachers, often encouraged and supported by the local authorities. And here, we find that those local authorities that were once highly proactive in this regard also have less ability to be so today.

If it is accepted that one of the roles of education beyond academia is to influence a child’s thinking to shape them into adults with due regard and respect for civil society, then education towards appropriate behaviour towards waste must feature within structured learning to all and at a far earlier stage.

There is a natural enthusiasm for the environment amongst children, particularly younger children. They love animals and many will have watched The Blue Planet and scenes of the detrimental effect of marine litter on the creatures featured. At present, there is little, if any, formal conduit to channel this interest.

In-school recycling is not widespread although it is improving. However, where it is available it is often the case that the means of recycling is very different from what children will see being used at homes. The schools themselves generally fall into the category of ‘commercial waste’ and receive a very different service of waste and recycling collections; sometimes delivered by an entirely different contractor. This means that using the school’s recycling activities to expand the local household recycling message is not possible yet something that could easily be fixed.

For example, if a local authority collects dry-mixed recycling from households in a blue bin, then the school should also use a blue bin for the same materials. This supports the wider recycling messages by providing visual continuity, regardless of the contractual arrangements in place.

As environmental knowledge and concerns are increasing, maybe consumers have a motivation deficit (as with other habitual behaviours) and different sorts of interventions (more affective) could be useful?

Stephen Bates: Interesting point! ‘Message fatigue’ is the phrase that springs to mind. I did some work in London recently targeting young adults on the message surrounding single-use plastic and plastic marine litter and there was a definite de-coupling of this from that of recycling and day-to-day waste behaviours.

We also need to consider the systems that they’re using daily and whether these systems are encouraging the right behaviours? For example, if a local authority collects as many refuse bags from a household how can we encourage them to use their recycling services? Behaviour change isn’t just about messaging and nudges, it is about ensuring that the systems and processes people use to encourage and reinforce to make them work effectively.

Do you see a role for central government funding for education and communications, or should it be done (and paid for) locally?

Stephen Bates: The institution that benefits from the improved performance coming from communication and education should be that which invests in that performance gain. The example I gave during the webinar of Warwickshire County Council is relevant here. They invested £80,000 in communications to address poor performance and contamination. That investment led to a £900k annual saving.

Why should the central government pay for the communications that the local authority benefits from? Where the central government can play a role in supporting communications where an evidence base does not yet exist to give local authorities the confidence to invest their own money.

20 years ago when the UK began to roll-out kerbside recycling, this is what the government then did, via a government agency called the Waste Resources Action Plan (WRAP) – creating a national campaign and funding support to enable local authorities to apply that national campaign locally. Over time, their role has become (amongst others) one of the national recycling brand custodian, the institutional ‘owner’ that ensures it’s proper use but at a local level, there is now sufficient body of evidence that should empower local authorities to spend their own money to bring about change to the levels required.

What is the next step to reduce contamination (besides better communication and information)?

On-pack labelling needs a rethink. It is well-intentioned but ultimately fails as it can cause more confusion than it addresses. Some local authorities have made things unnecessarily difficult with overly complex services but failed to commit to the investment in communications needed to overcome these difficulties. And more needs to be done to simplify packaging.

One other point on this is to question whether there is a need for a more unifying determination of what counts as contamination. We’ve seen several examples of contamination rising not because of public behaviour but because the processors changed the criteria of how they graded the recycling they were buying. When material prices fall, they naturally want high-grade material as this attracts the highest price – that’s fine, but what was happening was that material that would have been previously been graded as A or B (very good or good quality) was being downgraded to C or even D. In these situations, going to the public and asking them to improve already good behaviours can be counter-productive.

Many housing associations will not pay to ensure their bin stores are modernised to provide sufficient space for the required amount of bins. How can these associations be convinced they need to invest in improvements to allow their residents to recycle correctly?

Gemma Scott: LWARB is currently developing a cost/benefit tool for both local authorities and housing providers to help them to understand the costs/benefits of rolling out what is called the Flats Recycling Package in the webinar. I think the key thing to understand is what the drivers are for different housing associations. From their point of view, they may be more interested in improving and modernising their bin stores to prevent vermin, bulky waste build-up, leading to more dumping (with associated costs) and anti-social behaviour on their estates. Many of the housing associations we have spoken to are also keen on the story around CO2 savings.

Stephen Bates: We’ve also found that working with them on improving services often leads to their engagement to make further improvements. Enforced legislation and demonstrating to them the cost burden they’re carrying by not modernising contributes towards this engagement.

Head here to read moderator Adam Read’s reflections on this webinar.

  • Adam Read

    Chief Sustainability & External Affairs Officer, SUEZ UK

    Adam Read is the Director of External Affairs at SUEZ Recycling & Recovery. Adam has specialized...
  • Sarah Ottaway

    Sustainability & Social Value Lead, SUEZ UK

    Sarah Ottaway became SUEZ recycling and recovery UK’s Sustainability and Social Value Lead in 2019...
  • Stephen Bates

    Behaviour Change Communications Expert

    Stephen is a global leader for behaviour change communications in the waste management and environme...
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