Resource Use

Recycling perception versus reality: ‘disconnect’ highlighted in new survey

Recycling perception versus reality: ‘disconnect’ highlighted in new survey Eight out of 10 British adults say they recycle all or the vast majority of the waste they know to be recyclable in their homes, despite the UK’s recycling rate flatlining at 45 per cent.

The survey, commissioned by waste management company SUEZ, was carried out by YouGov this summer, asking adults from England, Scotland and Wales for their views on recycling.

In general, the results point to a ‘disconnect’ between how much people think they are recycling and what they are really throwing away, according to David Palmer-Jones, CEO of SUEZ recycling and recovery UK, who said: “Recycling performance in the UK has come on leaps and bounds over the last decade and it’s heartening to see that there is still so much enthusiasm for it among the British public.

“The national recycling figures confirm that actual recycling performance has plateaued at around 45 per cent of all household waste thrown away over the last few years – which could be explained by some of the findings… which point to a disconnect between how much people think they are recycling and what they are really throwing away. 

“If, in total, nearly eight out of 10 people think they are already recycling all, or at least the majority, of everything that can be recycled, then that may explain why many don’t see the need for further improvement.” 

A particularly interesting result from the survey is the difference in attitudes to recycling performance between ages. More than half (53 per cent) of over-55s think they recycle everything they can, a rate that drops steadily throughout the age ranges to 23 per cent for those aged 25-34 and finally 15 per cent for 18-24 year olds.

This could suggest that the younger generations are less interested in recycling, or that they have less access to more information about what can be included in recycling collections and have less ability to maximise their recycling performance (such as being provided with less comprehensive collections services for flats). 

Barriers to recycling

When asked what stops them from recycling more, 44 per cent of respondents said that there’s nothing preventing them from using recycling services more than they do – consistent with the attitude of 38 per cent that say they recycle all that they can.

Recycling perception versus reality: ‘disconnect’ highlighted in new survey However, 22 per cent said that the limited range of recyclable materials collected from the kerbside by councils was a barrier to improvement. A lack of knowledge of what can or can’t be recycled through the council systems also was reported as a hindrance (21 per cent), as was finding the local council’s collection system too complicated (seven per cent).

In fact, the survey’s results seem to suggest that better transmission of information to residents could make a big difference, as only four per cent said that they found recycling too much effort or that it wasn’t a priority for them, and three per cent said they just didn’t have time to recycle more.

While the recycling rate in the UK has stalled, the results imply that improvement could be attained through tweaks to the system, rather than a complete overhaul of the nation’s psyche.

What can be done to encourage greater recycling rates?

After ascertaining what residents considered the main barriers to improved recycling, the survey asked respondents which of a number of potential initiatives suggested by SUEZ they thought would improve recycling rates.

Though communications and information seemed to be significant issues, two of the more popular ways to get people to recycle more revolved around financial incentives. Nearly half (49 per cent) wanted council tax discounts for households that recycle more, while 42 per cent suggested vouchers for good recyclers.

Incentive schemes providing rewards for recycling residents have been tried before and are still used in a number of councils across the UK. However, several studies have questioned their efficacy, including a 2014 study carried out by Eunomia Research & Consulting, which found that for such schemes ‘value for money is unproven’, and in some cases, they could actually cost more than the ‘evaluated benefits they deliver’.

72 per cent of survey respondents want more on-pack recycling information, like that provided by the OPRL
A wider range of materials being included in recycling collections (42 per cent) and weekly separate food waste collections (27 per cent) were also popular ways that councils could improve recycling in their areas amongst respondents. But most thought that manufacturers and retailers should be made to make improvements to boost recycling.

When it came to producer responsibility, 57 per cent of respondents thought a legal requirement to publish how much packaging businesses produce would be effective; 72 per cent advocated providing more on-pack recycling information; and 69 per cent said paying more tax on packaging based on how much is produce would be effective ways of reducing waste from product packaging.

‘Time to engage the public’

Palmer-Jones said: “It seems that when it comes to performance drivers, the public favours the carrot over the stick – with large support for ideas like council tax discounts and money back schemes for those who recycle well.

“Perhaps it’s time to engage the public in more active ways, so that they become more individually invested in recycling performance rather than simply being told to recycle by industry and policy-makers because it’s the ‘right thing to do’. The findings of our research also show we all have more to do to engage the younger members of society and help them to become better and more enthusiastic recyclers, whilst also making existing collection schemes as easy to follow as possible. 

“As an industry, working in partnership with manufacturers, retailers and local authorities, it is clear that we can all do more to inform the public about the materials in the products and packaging they consume, how they can be recycled and, importantly, what happens to them after are they are put into the bin.”

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