Are consumers ready to hear the truth about recycling?

Stephanie Housty, marketing manager at compliance scheme Ecosurety, who has worked on a number of consumer awareness campaigns on packaging, batteries and WEEE, such as the recent Electric Avenue e-waste pilot campaign, gives her views on how more ‘openness’ with households can improve public confidence in recycling.

Recent surveys have confirmed what we already sensed: that UK public confidence in recycling has dropped. The regular release of mainstream media stories about UK waste being dumped on roadsides in distant countries is fuelling a growing disillusionment and lack of trust in our industry.

According to the recent INCPEN survey, 44% of respondents in England, 46% in Scotland and 50% in Wales said their recycling behaviours are influenced by whether items actually get recycled.

Why bother recycling?

While a majority of UK citizens do their bit by putting out their recycling religiously (and feel that bit is enough to save the planet – but that’s a different story), others are increasingly disheartened by the media stories they see. They wonder why they should bother if what they diligently sort for recycling is incinerated, landfilled or worse, dumped on some foreign shore.

The reality is that recycling is not that simple, as the industry knows all too well, and we face a number of challenges. Firstly, there is a lack of visibility of where the material collected for recycling is going and how it is processed, including at a compliance scheme level.

Hopefully, the forthcoming packaging EPR (extended producer responsibility) reform will address this by injecting more traceability in the new system.

Secondly, not all material collected can be recycled in the UK as we don’t have enough infrastructure to cope with our domestic waste. Unless we provide more investment to build more recycling plants in the UK, we will still have to rely heavily on overseas recycling facilities to recycle our own waste.

…Not everything households have sorted for recycling will actually be turned into new products… This is the ugly truth

Finally, not everything households have sorted for recycling will actually be turned into new products. Contamination, wishcycling, and complex multi-material composition of some waste streams raise difficulties that existing sorting and recycling technologies cannot always solve. This leads to some collected materials being discarded from recycling processes, to be incinerated for energy or destined for landfill.

This is the ugly truth. Does it undermine our credibility as an industry? Only if we hide it and mislead consumers to believe recycling systems are perfect.

We all too often focus – using good communication practices – on simple messages and calls to action on recycling campaigns to catch citizens’ limited attention span. However, by avoiding the elephant of the room – the flaws of the recycling system – we may be setting ourselves up to fail, by not addressing the concerns of a growing crowd of suspicious and sceptical consumers.

We all are on the recycling journey together

Is it time that we treat citizens as grown-ups and be open about the reality of recycling? Or are we in recycling denial where we dare not tell the truth, with messages that are instead cheerful and sugar-coated, as Leonardo DiCaprio’s character comes up against in the recent satirical comedy ‘Don’t Look up’?

The truth is, we are all on the recycling journey together – the recycling industry, manufacturers, government and citizens. Citizens are an essential cog in the system, and we need them to help us recycle more and better. We need citizens to recycle more materials as new technologies to process them are being developed.

We need citizens to help us solve contamination and wishcycling issues. And we can only do that if we are honest and transparent with them in our communications.

Let’s be candid and share more

How can we be honest with consumers if we ourselves lack visibility and can’t provide full transparency on our recycling practices?

First, let’s be candid and openly acknowledge in our campaigns that recycling systems are not perfect. We can’t recycle everything in the UK today. We don’t always know where the collected material is going.

But the industry is working hard to improve the system, with new technologies and processes being developed to treat more waste streams more efficiently and effectively. Fundamental reform of producer responsibility and recycling legislation is also on the way.

In the meantime, we need citizens to bear with us in our journey. That narrative to consumers will show vulnerability that will help rebuild trust.

Honesty and transparency will be key to regaining the public’s trust in our industry and to increasing their motivation to recycle more and better

Next, let’s share more openly our challenges about wishcycling and contamination and how citizens can help us avoid them in the first place. Their lack of awareness is an important barrier to good recycling behaviour.

If well-intended citizens realise that putting a non-targeted item into a recycling bin and hoping for the best has a worse impact than putting it in the black bin, this will be the vital first step towards changing their behaviour.

Finally, let’s share more end market stories, by showing more and more often how collected materials are sorted and treated, and how it is used to manufacture new products. Citizens are hungry for evidence that what they put out for collection is actually recycled. We need to communicate clearly why they should bother by showing the positive outcomes of their recycling efforts.

Honesty and transparency will be key to regaining the public’s trust in our industry and to increasing their motivation to recycle more and better. It is not an easy task and will require fundamental change across our industry, but is vital to achieve our collective recycling objectives and ensure we move faster towards a circular economy.

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