NLWA explores barriers to recycling

middling mainstreamers

Image: Jason Witchard for Resource

A new report into the motivation for and barriers to recycling has found a ‘targeted’ communications approach could increase recycling rates amongst householders. 

The report, ‘NLWA Optimising Communications, Engagement and Education’ carried out by M.E.L Research on behalf of the North London Waste Authority (NLWA), was commissioned to ‘inform [NLWA] joint communications, engagement and education activities for 2013/2014 and beyond’, and help the the authority achieve its self-imposed recycling target of 50 per cent by 2020. Currently NWLA recycles 30 per cent of household waste.

NLWA is made up of the London Boroughs of Barnet, Camden, Enfield, Hackney, Haringey, Islington and Waltham Forest.

Reporting process

M.E.L surveyed residents of the seven north London boroughs between December 2012 and April 2013, and then segmented them according to WRAP’s 11 recycling competence segmentation groups (identified in its ‘Barriers to recycling at home’ report).

Residents were categorised according to how much they recycle – ranging from ‘aware but inactive’ and ‘contemplated but not engaged’ through ‘intermittent’ and ‘trying their best’ to ‘broadly competent’. The research separated the two lowest categories (‘aware but inactive’ and ‘contemplated but not engaged’), into ‘Group 1’ with ‘intermittent’ and ‘trying their best’ falling into ‘Group 2’. 

Key findings 

M.E.L found that recycling performance was influenced by five main categories:

Intention to recycle impeded by (perception of) service provision.

According to the report, residents with a communal recycling service cited ‘inconvenience of accessing the recycling facilities or concerns over personal safety’, such as having communal recycling bins too far from flats and locked recycling facilities, as barriers to recycling.

It found that the withdrawal of doorstep recycling service in particular, had ‘negatively affected participants’ views of the council’ and their willingness to recycle.

Further, those living in maisonettes with a kerbside recycling service shared with other maisonettes, commonly reported that they had 'too few' recycling boxes that filled up ‘too quickly’, meaning it was ‘easier just to place all waste in the residual bin’.

The report suggested bringing recycling facilities in flats closer to communal areas or unlocking them, and, where this is not possible, ‘communicating, engaging and educating’ residents with how they can work around these barriers.

Awareness and perception of neighbours’ recycling habits

For the participants in Group 1 particularly those living in a flat, the perception that their neighbours contaminated the communal recycling facilities with their residual waste, made them less willing to ‘make the effort’ to recycle their own waste. Those living in masionettes with kerbside collection also cited reasons such as failure to ‘convince neighbours to jointly purchase an additional recycling box’, as part of their demotivation.

For the participants in Group 2 the attitude was more positive, with those living in maisonettes often saying they would ask neighbours if they could share their box, or putting additional recyclables into neighbours’ boxes. 

M.E.L suggested using communications to reflect the positive recycling behaviour of residents back to the community as a whole, providing updates on recycling rates within certain neighbourhoods, or benchmarking one neighbourhood against another. 

Jealousy over service provision outside London

The report found that another barrier to recycling for NLWA residents was the feeling that there were ‘better’ provisions of recycling services outside of London – this was particularly voiced by those in the ‘aware but inactive’, ‘contemplated but not engaged’, and ‘intermittent’ segments.

Residents said that this was ‘evidence’ that their own council were not doing ‘as much as they could’ to make recycling easy for them, which in turn, was given as a barrier to changing their own behaviour.

M.E.L suggested that local communications highlighting the recycling facilities available in specific neighbourhoods, and ‘positive messages about service improvements and changes, focused on the benefits to residents, rather than just factual information’, may help to influence recycling behaviour.

Responsibility for recycling within the household

M.E.L found that if responsibility for recycling was shared with other members of the household, such as their partner and/or children, participants were ‘more likely to fall within the higher recycling competence segments’ (i.e ‘trying their best’ and ‘broadly competent’). 

However, several participants in the ‘intermittent’ and ‘trying their best’ segments said that they had to police the behaviour of their teenage children and partner, removing recyclables from the residual bin and transferring non-recyclables from the recycling box to the residual bin. 

M.E.L suggested communicating the importance of sharing the responsibility of recycling and educating one another on how to recycle properly could help improve recycling rates and attitudes.

Presence or absence of recycling systems within the home 

Residents with ‘in-home’ recycling systems such as bins next to residual waste bins, were found to recycle more than those who put recycling straight into external recycling boxes, or those who kept recyclables on a kitchen counter before being put outside for collection. 

Association of recycling with clean and well-kept neighbourhoods 

One unifying message that came out from the report was that despite category, a ‘high proportion’ of residents associated the benefits of recycling with pride in their local area, such as ‘keeping it clean and safe’. 

The report found that this message seemed to have a more ‘direct effect’ on individuals than the message that recycling reduces the amount waste sent to landfill, or ‘saves the planet’. 

Directing communications to residents about keeping their neighbourhood clean, rather than their impact on the environment was one suggestion to improving communication effectiveness, because it ‘relates so directly to an individual’s daily experience of their environment’ and was a theme that ‘prevailed across all recycling competence segments’.

Organisational tips could form one strand of messaging in a communications campaign, such as storing recyclables in an additional bin next to the normal kitchen bin, different bags to store different types of recyclables or setting recyclables aside into a nominated cupboard.

Wider communication suggestions

Looking at communication campaigns directed at the two groups, the report found that Group 1 would benefit from ‘simple and direct’ communications, ‘reinforced’ over an extended period of time, with information being ‘locally-specific and practical’.  For those in Group 2, M.E.L suggested communications on increasing capture rates should be released, ‘coupling motivating messages with directional imagery and practical, specific tips’. Further, messages with a ‘positive tone, reinforcing their existing efforts to recycling’ are likely to work best.

The researchers conclude that while traditionally council and waste disposal authority communications have focused on converting non-recyclers, the research suggested that bigger gains could be made in targeting those residents who are already engaged in recycling but who ‘could do better’. 

Targeting residents who want to be seen as recyclers 

Speaking of the report, Councillor Clyde Loakes, Chair of the NLWA, said: “Our research suggests that some residents don’t recycle all the materials they could and they don’t recycle consistently, so there are big gains to be made here. We know these residents want to be seen as recyclers - and they want to make a difference - so our communications activity this year will focus on providing them with practical advice and support to show them how easy it is to do more.”

Read ‘NLWA Optimising Communications, Engagement and Education’ report or Resource’s version of the different types of recycler and how best to communicate with them.