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  • Writer's pictureDominic Ridley-Moy

Recycling rates soared during lockdown - how do we keep this going?

Over the last few weeks and months, we have seen an unprecedented level of behaviour change across many different areas of life.

Saving went up, cycling increased massively and it’s estimated that around one million people gave up smoking during lockdown. On the flip side, many found it difficult to stay active, people fell into debt and the economy may not recover to pre-covid levels until 2023.

One undoubted positive has been a massive increase in recycling. According to waste reduction charity WRAP, some Councils have seen a 34% increase in household recycling.

As we mark Recycling Week 2020, which runs from 21 – 27 September, the challenge for communications professionals is to harness this positive shift in behaviour and keep it going.

The answer lies in turning to behaviour change theory and its application; getting to the heart of why people do or don’t recycle and segmenting our response based on what we find.

Asking the following five questions can help you begin that process:

1 What is that we want people to do with their rubbish? Are we clear on our goals? Is it about creating less waste, is it about recycling more or is it about focusing on certain types of recyclables?

2 What are people doing at the moment? Do they recycle some things, but not others? Do people in flats recycle differently to people in houses?

3 What are the barriers to recycling? Is there confusion over what can and can’t be recycled, or maybe a lack of space for rubbish (e.g. not enough room for a recycling bin).

4 Who do we want to reach? Do we want to segment our communications by housing type, e.g. flats versus houses? Do people who have just moved into a property behave differently? And who do we want to spread the message on our behalf e.g. housing associations and letting agents?

5 What do we want people to do? Do we want people to focus on recycling a particular item or is contamination the biggest problem? Or do people think they are doing the right thing but get it wrong?

Looking at people’s intentions can help unpick these behaviours further, and apply interventions based on that insight.

What are people’s attitudes? Do they think most of their neighbours recycle, so they will too? Is there a keen recycler in each household who loves to recycle more than other family members? Or do they think that all recycling goes to landfill so they won’t bother? Or maybe they think it’s too difficult to recycle, or they don’t know what to recycle so they don’t bother.

Keep Britain Tidy recently published a report, as part of their contamination reduction programme, that does an excellent job of getting to the bottom of these questions and other behavioural drivers.

It found that there is a great deal of confusion about what can and cannot be recycled, lack of bin space is often an issue, and committed recyclers can often be the worst offenders for recycling contaminated items.

In conclusion, with recycling, as with any sort of behaviour change challenge, the answer is always to start with insight; what are people doing, and why are they doing it?

It’s only after this crucial research stage, that you can be confident that you’ll apply interventions that match people’s behaviour and can shift it in the right direction.

This article was first published by the Chartered Institute of Public Relations in September 2020.

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