23 April 2020

OPINION: Is it too easy for people not to recycle?

Sarah Ottaway, sustainability and social value lead at SUEZ recycling and recovery UK, reflects on a webinar earlier this month which discussed the evidence behind restricting residual waste collection capacity and frequency and its success in driving behaviour change and improving performance.

OPINION: Are we making it too easy for people not to recycle? That was the question posed the recent webinar hosted by letsrecycle.com. With recycling rates stagnating in recent years, and Defra’s new policy agenda focused on delivering a more consistent approach to recycling services in England (following in the footsteps of both Scotland and Wales), the intention was to explore if there was a missing piece of the policy jigsaw puzzle, namely residual waste capacity.

Joining myself and Adam Read (as chair) on the panel were Kristy Spindler of South Gloucestershire Council, sharing her experiences of driving behaviour change through changes to their services, and David Greenfield of SOENCES, a familiar face in the sector and all-round data guru. So, what was discussed and what did we conclude?

Are we being consistently inconsistent?


One reoccurring theme in recent times has been the variation in recycling collection services provided by authorities across the country and the differences between the containers used, their colour and what materials go in which container. But is the same true of residual waste? We asked our 200 strong audience about their current service provision, and as you might expect there was a wide variety of responses.These are  outlined  below.

This represents a real diversity in the provision of residual capacity to households, and to put this in perspective, a household with a 240-litre bin collected every fortnight will have 60 litres more space available for their “unrecyclable” household waste than a household in South Gloucestershire, with a 140-litre bin also collected every fortnight. And four times the capacity of a household in Conwy, who have their 240-litre bin collected every four weeks.

But more importantly than the variation, is what capacity do the public need to meet their needs today and over the coming years, given the knowledge that recycling targets and policies around the circular economy are coming?

Over the past decade we’ve seen a significant expansion of recycling services and containers as authorities have introduced and expanded both dry and organics collections from the home, providing households with more capacity than ever before for their waste. However, the total waste being produced has reduced only slightly, by an average of 1kg.


Whilst we have given households more choice than ever before about where they put their waste, as WRAP’s recently released nationwide compositional study shows, they’re not making the best choices about what to do with it. With almost three million tonnes of fibres, glass, metal and plastic packaging still being disposed of every year through kerbside residual waste services, and which in many cases local authorities readily collect.

WRAP’s nationwide compositional study, 2017 (Click to enlarge)

On average 57% of the content of UK household residual waste could be recycled through the minimum recycling services proposed by DEFRA in their recent consultation. This increases to 60% with the addition of garden waste, and 65% with the addition of textiles, which many local authorities already collect from the kerbside.

As such, almost two thirds of the current capacity provided to households should no longer be needed once they have a recycling service which meets DEFRA’s proposed minimum (and consistent) service standard.

But have those who have changed their refuse services really seen a change in behaviour?

On the webinar, Kristy shared the recent successes South Gloucestershire have delivered through a phased approach to changing their services, based on real world data and detailed analysis to create a clear strategy for change.

They started by restricting refuse sacks being brought into their Household Waste Recycling Centres (where their contents were found to be 75% recyclable), and then moved from a fortnightly to a weekly recycling service (in theory making it more accessible and easy for residents), and finally replacing their 240 litre residual waste bins with smaller 140 litre ones.

Soenecs’ analysis of KGs of residual waste per household by collection type

The results speak for themselves: with a 10% increase in their recycling rate, a 10,000 tonnes reduction in residual waste arisings, and significant budgetary savings.

And there are more examples of success in restricting residual waste capacity to help drive up recycling nationally, as David illustrated with his analysis (see graph) of the weight (in kgs) of residual waste presented per household per year. Showing that generally those on lower frequency collections presented 2.5 times less residual waste annually than those on a more than weekly collection and over 100kgs less than those on a fortnightly collection.

Whilst this doesn’t give us a definitive conclusion – as we need to consider the size of the bin too – it certainly suggests that there is a clear link between service provision and the amount of residual waste being presented for collection. And if that is the case then can we in the sector use this to drive real change?

But shouldn’t we be reducing the amount of waste we create?

Waste prevention programmes and campaigns have an important role to play in reducing the overall burden of society on the environment, but at present it is not delivering large scale behavioural change. This is something we’ve seen all too clearly in recent months, with the public’s anger at disposable coffee cups and single use plastics not resulting in any significant changes in coffee sales in reusable mugs which remains stubbornly low, whilst plastic bottle sales continue to grow. Good communications and behavioural nudges have a key role in driving certain behaviour changes, but in these cases the well-intentioned messaging is not translating into ingrained habits at a large enough scale to make a real impact. So what can we do to get the scale of change we all desire?

Changes at the kerbside would touch every household

The one service every household uses in the UK on an almost daily basis, is their kerbside collection service, whether for recycling, organics or residual waste, making this is an ideal opportunity to influence behaviour at real scale.

In South Gloucestershire, Kristy saw a reduction of 10,000 tonnes of residual waste following their service changes, while Conwy’s year-long four weekly collection trial reported a 30% reduction in the total waste generated. Similar stories have been reported by other pioneer authorities who have introduced changes to residual waste capacity or frequency. This demonstrates a clear and retained change in behaviour as households are ‘forced’ to consider the waste they produce and are choosing to put more of their recyclables they once regularly discarded in the right place, to free up room in their shrinking or less frequently collected residual container.

What could a future policy on residual waste look like?

The key question we need to answer is what is the maximum capacity a household needs to manage their genuinely unrecyclable waste? If 65% (with garden waste and textiles) of the contents of an average bin is recyclable, this means based on an average 240-litre bin, a household would only need 43 litres a week (or 172 litres a month). Is the starting point for future policy? Not just yet, and more analysis is needed to understand the impacts of the various policy measures (changes in frequency, container size and service provision), the potential waste reduction opportunities as a result of these changes, and the need to maintain local decision making about local services. But we can’t ignore the issue as the policy landscape continues to evolve.

It’s time to take residual waste off its political pedestal!

Our webinar audience told us quite clearly through their feedback that political sensitivities were their main barrier to making any change to their refuse services, and yet we find ourselves in the midst of one of the biggest policy shakeups in our sector for over a generation. Will we find ourselves with some stones left unturned when it comes to evaluating long-term policy decisions? Is residual waste capacity just too sensitive an issue?

From the evidence of those pioneering authorities who have embraced change when it comes to their residual waste service provision and capacity, we have the opportunity to create a new approach which truly drives the right behaviours and increases recycling performance whilst reducing waste, so what’s stopping us? We must enable households to play their part in a more circular economy – but to achieve this we have to stop making it so easy for them not to recycle.


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