Colour coordination

While calls for standardisation of recycling tend to be dismissed out of hand whenever they’re made, John Twitchen says a bit of coordination would go a long way, and asks: “Seriously, how hard can it be?”

It’s not how you do it, it’s whether you did what you said you would, when you said you would, that matters when it comes to bin collections. We know this from research, including ‘Attitudes to waste and recycling Great Britain, 2011’ from Copper (formerly Sauce Consultancy and 3G Communications) and Icaro Consulting. 

An equal truism is that the Great British public really aren’t all that fussed about the colour of the bin/box/bag that their rubbish or recycling is collected from, just as long as it is fit for purpose and easy to use. Politicians, on the other hand, can get in a terrible fluster about the colour of bins, but perhaps they should concern themselves with more important issues.

Nevertheless, we’re in a fantastically technicolour world when it comes to bins, despite a degree of standardisation thanks to WRAP’s recycling iconography that is not only standing the test of time, but is now widely used across the public and private sector. It’s in homes, on bin lids, in public places, and at the local tip. 

There are 376 waste collection authorities, and almost as many different ways of collecting and colour-coding our bins. Every time (and there have been many) over the last couple of decades that someone has been naïve enough to suggest a degree of coordination in the colour of bins, they have been met with an avalanche of reasons why it would be ‘too difficult’. But it is not; moreover, it is essential that we do take on this challenge.

Pretty much every home now has a container of some kind for their recycling. It doesn’t matter whether it’s a bin or a box or a bag, nor does it matter what the bag or box or bin is made of. But they are never quite the same. And sometimes there are quite a lot of them… 

On average in the UK, people move house
every six years. We may only move a few miles (averaging three in the North, and six in the South), but that’s often enough to take us across the bin-colour border. Let confusion reign! Of course, we all recover quickly, work out what goes where, and get on with it.

But that is not the reason for standardisation. The reason is that it is very difficult to communicate on a grand scale – nationally. And we are losing out on two fronts: simplifying the message, making it easier to repeat; and gaining the support of major corporations and brands to fully embed the message. 

Twice in the last 12 months, I’ve heard speakers from two different major corporations say that they would support a national recycling communications campaign if there was a single, simple message around recycling.

This article was taken from Issue 74

Most systems collect around five basic common items, primarily packaging and paper ‘products’. A national campaign should initially focus on this and direct the consumer to a simple, single source of information to find out more, which we already have: Pop in your postcode, hit the big green ‘Start’ button and Robert’s your mother’s brother.  

But here’s the quid-pro-quo. Local authorities need to buy into this by standardising the colour-coding of their communications with the national campaign. This can be fully integrated when contracts allow, but the early phase will be to simply adopt the primary colourway in literature reprints, website information and on bin stickers. The Recycle Now ‘swoosh’ will prevail, of course. 

It won’t take long for the lids to be replaced on bins and boxes, and those using sacks will be sorted inside the first six months. The cost will be outweighed by the significant benefit of a brand-supported campaign that enables authorities to hit targets and earn more cash from recyclables. 

Imagine the power of the campaign, promoted by brands with a simple, single colour-coded call-to-action: recycle. Brands are much better at engaging consumers – it’s what they do. 

So come on Coke, Unilever, and the rest: I’m serious about this. I know you are too – let’s go and make it happen.