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If we like recycling, why are we so bad at it?

recyclingThis post first appeared on BusinessGreen.

March was an odd month for anyone working on waste and resources. Thanks to Hugh’s War on Waste revealing that only 1 in 400 coffee cups is recycled, the recyclability of composite materials was suddenly headline news. This triggered a media furore over whether we were being misled by coffee shop claims about recycling their cups. To my slight surprise, the issue even united the Daily Mail and The Telegraph with The Guardian in their indignation. But even more striking was the disappointment and frustration expressed when people learnt that most coffee cups went to waste, despite them putting them in recycling bins. People really cared about whether their cups were recycled or not.

So it was doubly disappointing when it was announced in March that recycling rates had declined for the first time in 16 years. Why are recycling rates falling if this is an issue we care so much about and how can we capitalise on people’s good intentions?

Why we’re going backwards
The first thing to clear up is why we appear to be going backwards. Delving into the detail of Defra’s stats, it’s clear that the decline is due to a fall in the amount of garden waste collected. Defra attribute this to annual variation in how much plants grow, although it’s hard to believe that the growing number of councils cutting free garden waste collections isn’t a contributing factor.

So it’s not that we’ve given up on recycling but, in England, recycling does seem to have plateaued at a level of achievement that’s significantly below Europe’s best, and that includes our Welsh neighbours. So perhaps we’re not such devoted recyclers after all?

Actually, whilst we might like to grumble about it, recycling is the most popular pro-environmental behaviour amongst the British public and is the first thing that comes to mind when people are asked about doing their bit for the environment.

So, is there something about our recycling system that thwarts people in their good intentions? Research by WRAP suggests there might be. Their survey of what people recycle found that only one quarter of households make the most of their recycling collections, ie they recycle everything they can and don’t try to recycle anything they can’t (like coffee cups). The remaining three quarters are either over zealous recyclers and contaminate their recycling by trying to recycle things that their council doesn’t collect, or are not as engaged as they might be and bin things they should be recycling. This suggests high levels of confusion, not helped by the fact that the number of people receiving information about what they can recycle went down by a quarter between 2014 and 2015, as one of many local authority cuts.

Universal collection and better design are solutions
Which is where we get to solutions. Looking at those countries that recycle more, a common feature is universal collection of a consistent set of materials across the country. This enables much clearer public communication campaigns, not least because manufacturers can put clear recycling instructions on the packaging. Even in our current, inconsistent system, some businesses are already investing in local campaigns to reduce waste and increase recycling, such as Sainsbury’s £1 million initiative in Swadlincote. With a consistent approach across the whole country this same level of investment would reach millions of people rather than just thousands.

But beyond encouraging better engagement with current systems, businesses can also fundamentally improve the potential for good outcomes through the design of their products. There are already solutions to be found, like the coffee cup lined with compostable plastic from Vegware or Dow’s RETAIN plastic additive that increases the recyclability of plastic film. Whilst recyclability is only one factor in packaging design decisions, increasing the emphasis put on it by manufacturers and retailers will encourage further innovations like these.

Right now, however, the development and adoption of such innovations is being driven by demand from a few pioneering companies. The same is true for the use of recycled materials. If we want more manufacturers to follow their lead, we need to reward the use of recycled and recyclable materials and make unrecyclable materials more expensive. This would align the interests of producers with those of local authorities and enable an ‘I will if you will’ approach, whereby products are produced with recycling in mind and local authority collection systems recover them for manufacturers at the best quality possible. Such a collaborative approach could translate into better engagement with householders, ensuring our desire to recycle is met with a system that works well for everyone.