Material campaigns (1/2)

With local authority recycling communications suffering from budget cuts, Resource gathered representatives of material-specific trade bodies (and LARAC) around a table to discuss how to fill the gap. Here’s what they had to say

Resource: How successful have UK local authorities been at recovering packaging in the last five years?

Andrew Bird: If you go back 10 years, we have achieved a remarkable amount. The worry is that in England we have plateaued, there are no incentives for local authorities to do anything on recycling because of budget pressures elsewhere. Wales and Scotland, on the other hand, are really embedding the circular economy. So we're going to have some real challenges in England to catch up with that, and that really depends what happens after the election next year

Rebecca Cocking: I think from an overall point of view, we have to say that there has been success because we have seen an increase in the amount of material diverted from landfill. For glass, over the last few years, the overall economic situation and pressure to keep material out of landfill have been at the cost of quality.

Fay Daspher: Because we're often one of the last sets of packaging materials to go into kerbside recycling, cartons are still seeing that increase across all four areas of the UK. We suspect we're looking at probably 2017/18 for a plateau. I would echo the point that budget cuts are having an impact – the amount of e-mail bounce backs that we get from people that were there two weeks ago and are no longer there. You phone up and find it was a case of redundancy, that groups have been halved and in some cases completely deleted. We see that that's having an impact on communications budgets in particular.

AB: There are loads of recycling offices that have gone – you've got authorities that have merged their operations with another department and therefore one would take the lead, but won't increase the staff. And then you've also got people taking over responsibility who have absolutely no background knowledge at all, and are looking after leisure services and umpteen other departments as well.

Diana Caldwell: Is it the case that a lot of local authority waste collection contracts are passing over the responsibility for communications to the waste management industry?

AB: It's a bit of a mixed bag. Some that have external contracts are quite happy to push it all onto the contractor, but the outsourcing of waste services has probably plateaued as well. If anything, more are bringing them back in-house because there are savings to be had there.

RC: In some cases, it’s not just comms, it's the entire waste function. In some places, there's nobody on the council that runs waste, other than somebody to make sure they’re achieving what they're meant to do at a contractual level.

AB: There are an awful lot of authorities now that are terming themselves ‘commissioning’, so they don't actually do anything themselves at all, everything is basically contracted out.

Steve Morgan: Recoup produce a plastics collection survey, we usually get between 75 and 80 per cent of responses from local authorities, but over the last two years, many conversations have been: “That function now has gone out to procurement”; or “I'm new in post”; “I'm in a temporary position”; “I have no experience of waste management.” It's become a real problem to get informed feedback apart from standard core data. Going back to your original question about collection levels, we produce this graph each year, which is similar to graphs for other materials. It gradually increases throughout the 1990s and then suddenly around 2005/06 it really starts to push up, and then from 2007 the non-bottle materials such as the pots, tubs and trays started to be collected in greater numbers and you saw a huge leap. But all our estimates in 2011 fell short, we thought there would be a huge jump again, and that didn't happen.

R: Have you come up with any reasons for that unexpected plateauing?

SM: A lot of our feedback has been that people feel recycled out. Some of the bad messages about what happens to material – is it all going off to China or being landfilled? – are really getting across.

RC: From a 2011 point of view, local authorities already had the advanced notification that budgets were going to be cut, and communications started to dry up, and we all know that to be successful you have to have constant drip feeding.

AB: Keeping communications budgets keeps contamination down and saves money, but often the financial department will think: “Oh, we don't need that.” And this is particularly true for those with co-mingled services, where the assumption is that it's dead easy for the householder – they just throw it all in one bin. So you're seeing a lot of communications disappear from those types of collection systems. That will come back to bite them when the MRF Code of Practice kicks in and they start getting rejected loads.

FD: What we find is that some authorities don’t look at the overall value and the value of cost avoidance, particularly in two-tier areas where they will just look at the inherent cost on that sheet of paper and not at the avoidance of disposal costs.

AB: Any government following next year’s election should put a reduction target on residual waste. Now, that won't sit well with Mr Pickles, but by forcing it that way you will hopefully the financial benefits of going for materials that have obviously got less weight but more value.

DC: The key to whatever policy decisions are made around targets, all comes down to talking to the householder. If you're not explaining why you're doing things and how they can play their part, they're never going to get fully behind any system. The frustration from the metal recycling industry is that the infrastructure is there, we can cope with everything that is put on the market, but increasing participation is the issue.

AB: I think some of it's negative press, the Daily Mail stuff that people latch on to and believe more than any communications from a local authority. And then you've got a minister who is banging the drum about going back to...

DC: The Dark Ages.

AB: Somebody told me recently about a resident whose food waste collection had been missed and told the authority “I'm not participating in this anymore because you failed.” And so the authority asked: “If we failed to pick your residual waste up, would you not take part in that anymore?” “Oh no, that's completely different.” And that's the core of the problem – people’s perception is that that is the only bit that matters.

SM: One of the first activities for our ‘Pledge 4 Plastics’ initiative was a national survey of 4,000 responses, and one of the key questions was ‘If you're unsure about what to do with an item, do you place it for recycling or not?’ Seventy-seven per cent of people said they'd place it in the general waste bin. So that's a huge amount of material being diverted straight away out of the recycling.

D: It reflects how much time people are prepared to invest in finding out. They might spend hours on Facebook or searching eBay, but when it comes to what to do with plastic pots – if they’re not inspired, they’ll just think, ‘Oh, I can't be bothered – just chuck it away.’

FD: Part of the issue is that websites aren't actually up to date. We were having to get in touch with a national recycling website to tell them their information was 18 months out of date.

RC: Householders are so used to people taking their bins that when you ask them to put something in a recycling bin it's as though they're doing you a favour.

AB: And they assume that we spend all their council tax on bin collections because that's the only thing they see, and when we tell them it works out at 52p a week, say, a) they don't believe you and b) they think well if that's all it is, why can't you do x?

RC: It's a behavioural thing because people will go abroad where they might have three or four recycling bins, and they're quite happy to put them in the appropriate bins, but when they're at home it's like a given right that LAs will collect their bins and sort everything out.

R: Has anyone got any ideas about how much material is lost when people are consuming things on the go?

SM: One of the stats from this consumer insight work we did was that almost two in five, 39 per cent have plastic drink bottles to dispose of outside the home very or fairly often, rising to 58 amongst those 18 to 34 year olds. A further 44 per cent have them to dispose of occasionally. Only around two in five recycle them, 17 per cent in a recycling bin and a further 24 per cent when they get home or to work. So when they’re on the go, most throw it into the nearest unit available whether it's a recycling unit or not.

DC: I think the majority of people don't want to litter, they don't want to make a mess of the place. Equally, they don't want to carry around an empty can – as soon as they've finished they're ready to recycle it and they want a bin there.

FD: With on the go, there are some really good examples like Westminster and then really poor examples. I spoke to the head of waste management at a rural council who wouldn't believe me that ‘on the go’ was an actual waste management term – it was like the drawbridge was up.

This article was taken from Issue 78

DC: That's such a barrier – individual attitudes and awareness. What hope has the household got of getting the right message when the people in charge of planning the service don’t buy into it?

FD: Quite often, it's down to one person and how good or bad they are.

DC: We've certainly found that with MetalMatters where we've worked with something approaching 40 local authorities now. It’s a template programme – we’re giving them the artwork and organising distribution, so literally all they have to do locally is PR events, roadshows. The campaigns where we've had the best results are where they've got behind it and just run with it and they've got the materials giving out the message banners at every event they go to. Some take a more ‘laid-back’ attitude, and yes it's improved the capture rate, but it hasn't reached its potential.

AB: If you go back 20 years when local authorities we were wholly reliant on organisations such as yourselves to get recycling up and running, a lot of recycling offices were keen and willing to engage. Subsequently, councils got into contracts and more waste management companies have come into play.

DC: But it's in the waste management industry’s interest to support these sorts of campaigns because they're the ones that are getting the majority of the revenue from them.

End of part one - continue to part two here.