Resource Use

Public has ‘fundamental misunderstanding’ of waste hierarchy

A new report published by environmental charity Keep Britain Tidy has identified a ‘fundamental misunderstanding’ of what waste prevention means amongst the public – preventing ‘urgently needed’ waste reduction and reuse behaviours, which form the top of the waste hierarchy.

ReuseThe charity highlights that individuals default to recycling rather than waste prevention, feeling that through this alone they are ‘doing their bit’ for the environment.

Keep Britain Tidy is calling on policy-makers and practitioners to work together to educate and motivate people to move beyond recycling and make choices that reduce their environmental impact in the first place.

Allison Ogden-Newton OBE, Chief Executive of Keep Britain Tidy commented: “We urgently need to see a widespread adoption of waste prevention behaviours to help bring natural resource use and carbon emissions down to environmentally sustainable levels. Moving people up the waste hierarchy, from recycling to waste prevention, is a huge challenge when our current systems are geared towards increased consumption of resources.

“While government waste prevention policies are continuously delayed, the onus is on practitioners to drive behaviour change. This includes NGOs working on all aspects of ‘reduce, reuse, recycle’ and sustainable consumption and also local authorities as people’s most prominent source of information about recycling. Collectively, we have to attempt to counteract the marketing messages that people are bombarded with, continually pushing them to buy more stuff.”

In order to promote the shift towards waste prevention, the charity presents key insights about the public’s current knowledge gaps and their attitudes to waste. These include:

  1. A lack of understanding of the waste hierarchy

    In Keep Britain Tidy’s national survey, when presented with a visual representation and explanation of the waste hierarchy, 55 per cent agreed that they have a better understanding of how waste should be dealt with to minimise its environmental impact. For this reason, it is clear that the prioritisation of recycling over waste prevention in policy has led to a fundamental lack of understanding of the waste hierarchy among most of the public.

  2. Associating waste more with what is thrown away than what is bought

    The report identified a far more significant proportion of people associating the negative environmental impact of putting things in the bin (not recycling) compared to buying the things they want and need (83 per cent compared to 49 per cent respectively). Keep Britain Tidy recommends a shift in the narrative to focus more on what we buy rather than what we throw away.
  3. A lack of knowledge between waste prevention and the climate emergency

    Stronger links need to be made between the climate emergency and the importance of waste prevention behaviours. The survey showed 68 per cent of people think that recycling is the best thing they can do to reduce the environmental impact of the things they buy and 33 per cent said they didn’t realise there are much better ways to reduce the impact of their waste than recycling.

    79 per cent of people say, as a country, we buy too much stuff yet only 25 per cent say they personally buy too much stuff. The charity concluded that this demonstrates that people's concerns about consumption aren’t related to their own personal behaviour. 
  4. More dialogue is needed surrounding waste prevention 

    The research showed a lack of understanding of what waste prevention actually means, particularly the practical things people can do to prevent waste. People see waste as something to be ‘managed’ rather than prevented – in effect ‘wasting better’ rather than ‘wasting less’, says Keep Britain Tidy.

    As a result, the charity suggests that more dialogue is needed, as well as the celebration around people’s waste prevention behaviours and good practices.

    In order to increase dialogue, and use insights from the research, Keep Britain Tidy has developed its new behaviour change intervention – Buy Nothing New Month – which is running throughout January 2023 and advocates the ‘need to do more and buy less’.

    Allison Ogden-Newton OBE added:  “Learnings from our first Buy Nothing New Month campaign, launched this week, will help develop the evidence base around how to help people move up the waste hierarchy to buying less stuff and maximising the life of stuff that already exists. This is just the beginning and we invite other organisations to collaborate with us, debate and share evidence to take this agenda forward.”

    Throughout the month, the charity will share tips on how people can make the most of what they already have. The campaign will call on people to rethink what they want versus what they need, reconsider if they can repair versus replace and think about whether they can rent, borrow or buy second-hand rather than buy new.

  5. The need for the correct infrastructure to make reducing and reusing as easy as possible

It was also found that only 41 per cent of people surveyed feel they have access to products and services that can help them reduce waste. More investment, signposting and promotion of local initiatives from repair cafes to rental schemes are crucial to help drive change, the charity suggests.

An invitation to discuss the findings

Keep Britain Tidy will be hosting a free webinar on 12 January to discuss the findings and insights from the report and what this means for the waste sector. You can register here