Recycling not enough to fight climate change, CIWM panel hears

The second day of CIWM’s Resourcing the Future conference (15 June) heard David Hall from Behaviour Change point out that local authorities need to branch out from recycling so as not to “reinforce the misconception” that it is the main way to fight climate change.

(l-r): David Hall, executive director and founder of Behaviour Change, Sarah Divall from Hubbub and chair Paul Vanston, CEO of INCPEN

The session was chaired by Paul Vanston, CEO of INCPEN and welcomed David Hall, founder and executive director of Behaviour Change, as the first speaker.

The social enterprise was founded in 2009 and became a subsidiary of resources charity WRAP at the beginning of this year.

Mr Hall explored the topic of social and environmental change is grounded in behavioural science.
“There is still a surprising amount of uncertainty around the actions we need to take with citizens,” he said.

“A majority still tend to think that recycling and avoiding plastic waste are the main ways to tackle climate change. But the narrative of ‘small changes make a big difference’ doesn’t reflect the reality and simply won’t cut it,” Mr Hall explained.

David Hall pointed out that change needs to start within the system


He mentioned two main ways to change behaviour; one being making it easy for citizens to participate. The second was applying pressure, either through threats, incentives or arguments.

“Social pressure plays an important role, making people feel that it is the ‘right thing’ to do,” he added.

While citizen participation is important, the change needs to start within the system rather than focus on the individual, he continued. “We need fewer bigger changes, to acknowledge the importance of consumption and to test and learn from our approach,” Mr Hall concluded.


The topic of communication, a crucial aspect of facilitating behaviour change, was taken on by Sarah Divall, creative partner at Hubbub.

“Communicating waste in a digital world is about finding something that people will want to share and sneak environmentalism in through the back door,” Ms Divall said. To demonstrate her point, she used examples of communication projects undertaken by Hubbub and the lessons learnt.

Sarah Divall took on the topic of communicating waste in a digital world

“These topics need to be communicated with playfulness, humour and authenticity,” she explained. “Don’t be afraid to outsource to whoever is better suited to connect with who you’re trying to reach, rather than shouting out into the void.”

Ms Divall found that people shy away from topics that they think are dry, but “once you find the right way to communicate, it’s always worth doing.”

Starting point

In a Q&A session that followed, the speakers discussed the role of waste industry as a starting point for a wider discussion on any other changes that can be implemented.
“If you talk too much about climate change and the connection to recycling, you reinforce the misconception and there’s a risk that will backfire,” Mr Hall said. In terms of changing behaviours, “recycling is a good one to work with because the citizen has already decided to dispose – we’re just trying to influence how they do it,” he explained.

“What we buy and throw away is our responsibility as much as the producers,” Ms Divall added. Mr Hall then concluded that it’s a reframing job – from recycling to thinking about how we consume.


The afternoon panel discussion on the position of the waste industry in responding to climate change was chaired by Jacob Hayler, executive director of Environmental Services Association.

The panel was formed from Dr Anna Willets, senior vice-president of CIWM, Sophie Walker, CEO and co-founder of Dsposal, Gary Bower, director of corporate stewardship at Augean, and OPRL’s executive director Margaret Bates.

The afternoon panel, (l-r): Sophie Walker from Dsposal, OPRL’s executive director Margaret Bates, Gary Bower from Augean, CIWM’s senior vice-president Anna Willets and chair, Jacob Hayler from ESA

Gary Bower pointed out that the sector needs to look at climate change through environmental and social strategies, which will result in carbon reduction, rather than focusing them on the carbon reduction itself. He highlighted the need for setting relevant, achievable and science-based targets as well as for simple and clear reporting. “You can’t change what you don’t measure,” he added.


Several speakers agreed that part of the problem is that climate change is considered not urgent.

Margaret Bates, executive director of OPRL, compared the approach to climate crisis to the approach to the pandemic, pointing out how quickly people were able to change their habits in the case of the latter, where the perceived threat seemed instant.

And, consumption was again brought up as one of the main issues. Sophie Walker said that “we have to accept we can’t just keep growing.”

She concluded: “We have to find a way to not use the economy as an excuse not to act on the environment.”

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