Negative messaging helps Hull cut contamination

Hull city council says negative messaging and a ‘three-strikes-and-you’re-out’ policy has allowed it to keep the contamination rate of its recycling below 15%. 

Hull has rolled out several campaigns warning residents that contaminated bins won’t be recycled

Speaking at the Local Authority Recycling Advisory Committee’s (LARAC) annual conference last week (8 October), Paul Thomas, waste contracts and strategy manager at Hull city council, said the city had had a 20% contamination rate in 2009.

The council awarded Hartlepool-based J&B Recycling a 10-contract to process the commingled recyclable materials collected from households in Hull in 2015. A clause in the contract states that contamination must be kept at below 15%.

Positive messaging, whereby residents were told what they could put in their recycling containers, did not prove effective, Mr Thomas said. Eighty-seven per cent of respondents to a questionnaire given to 1,000 people on what could be recycled got 100% of the answers correct, yet there was still a significant level of contamination. 

Instead, Hull shifted its focus to what could not go in the containers and to removing bins from those who persistently did the wrong thing. To date, the council has removed 5,000 recycling bins. 

Residents can have their bins returned if they sign a declaration promising to do the right thing, but Mr Thomas said only 20% had done so. 


Mr Thomas said there were now rarely complaints in response to the negative campaign, though there were “one or two a week to start with”. He could not remember the last time he had received a complaint, even from those sceptical within the council. 

“Members were told in no uncertain terms that if we didn’t do anything we wouldn’t have a contract,” he said. 

Representing a population of just more than 260,000, Hull city council had a household waste recycling rate of 48.1% in the 2019/20 financial year. Mr Thomas noted Hull had the fourth highest level of deprivation in the UK. 


Mark Penny, contracts manager at J&B Recycling, also spoke at the session. He said the company had seen a slight increase in the quality of recycling delivered from local authorities at the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, followed by a decrease. 

J&B Recycling processes recycling for the council

J&B Recycling handles waste from 11 local authorities. Mr Penny said there was on average 9-25% contamination. 

The pandemic forced a change in the composition of the recycling, he said, with there being significantly more cardboard. 

Mr Penny suggested the increased recycling tonnages, and particularly cardboard, may have “masked” levels of contamination. 

Recycling tonnages remain 10-15% higher than pre-Covid levels, he said. “When lockdown first happened, it was like Christmas had arrived, in terms of waste levels.” 

‘Thanks for Trying’ 

At the session, the North London Waste Authority (NLWA) offered an alternative approach to tackling contamination. Miriam Cragg, the NLWA’s interim communications manager, offered details of the ‘Thanks for Trying’ campaign, launched in June. 

In 2020, 15% of the materials the NLWA collected were contaminated with non-recyclables like nappies, food, and textiles. Contamination cost north London taxpayers around £2 million a year, Ms Cragg said. 

Devised by not-for-profit social enterprise Behaviour Change, the Thanks for Trying campaign used “tongue-in cheek” advertising on streets, the underground and social media to thank people for trying their best to recycle. 

The campaign highlighted “the weird objects” people tried to recycle. As part of the campaign, the NLWA ran an exhibition in collaboration with artist Matt Kemp to “bring to life” the types of objects rejected from north London’s household recycling stream. Launched at Coal Drop’s Yard in July, the exhibition is now on tour across North London. 

Ms Cragg said the campaign garnered 16,000 impressions outdoors and 1 million on social media. 

The NLWA is made up of seven boroughs in North London: Barnet, Camden, Enfield, Hackney, Haringey, Islington, and Waltham Forest. 


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