How behavioural science can support a circular economy


With recycling rates at an all time low, Andrea Lockerbie asks can behavioural science help improve performance and nudge us towards a more circular economy?

Behavioural science has been used to persuade the general public to ‘do the right thing’ for decades. It offers a multitude of theories and frameworks for understanding everyday behaviour and, crucially, the potential to change it.

It’s a tool that has the capacity to be useful in the domestic recycling sector, where the general public’s ability and willingness to separate and recycle waste is just as important as a local authority’s ability to process it.

Behavioural science is a multifaceted, sometimes subtle, discipline. It’s not just about communication, although this is an important component. Done properly, it can make a huge difference, as high-profile campaigns around road safety and public health – and over the course of the Covid-19 pandemic – have shown.

With standardisation of kerbside recycling coming soon to England – and already being present in Scotland and Wales – could the time be right for a similar national campaign around recycling?

People have been told many times to recycle; they know they should – so now we are down to nudging and persuading.

Gwen Frost, head of behaviour change and impact at consultancy Resource Futures, believes behavioural science has “a massive role to play” in moving the country towards its recycling ambitions. “People have been told many times to recycle; they know they should – so now we are down to nudging and persuading.”

Belinda Miller, insight director at Corporate Culture, agrees that such campaigns have a role to play, but says they don’t work in isolation. “National campaigns are effective at winning over hearts and minds, or as a call to action, but more targeted messaging is also needed to change behaviours.”

Behavioural scientist Lisa Zhang, from the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA), agrees. “Information provision alone is not enough to change behaviour; structural and policy changes are also important. More niche campaigns that target specific behaviours and their influences are needed.”

Miller explains that a behaviour-change project starts with gathering insight on the problem and understanding the local context. “You look at the customer journey, the same as any other industry, and map out every single thing – what, where, when, why and how.

“Once you understand the problem and context, you can identify your audiences and what gets in the way of them carrying out the behaviours that you want – then identify interventions that will tackle those barriers.”

Meeting people where they are currently at is key. It’s unrealistic to expect people to care as much about recycling as you do.

While lowering the barriers to recycling and convincing the public of its importance are both vital, this is only part of the solution. Gavin Ellis, director and co-founder of Hubbub, says it’s critical to ensure the right systems are in place before trying to persuade people to take action.

“As consistent collections are introduced over the coming years, this should help reduce the confusion around what can and can’t be recycled. Meeting people where they are currently at is key. It’s unrealistic to expect people to care as much about recycling as you do.”

Hubbub’s most successful campaign to date has been “Leeds by Example”, which almost tripled the number of people recycling on the go in Leeds city centre. It used brightly coloured bins and simple, specific messaging, but Ellis puts its success down to the “city-wide collaboration”.

“It involved everyone; from the council, local waste contractors and shopping centres to universities, local community groups and many more… who were all curious around a shared question of what can be done to get people to recycle correctly on the go.”

The same approach to on-the-go recycling has been taken to seven other locations in a campaign called #InTheLoop, and an open-source toolkit will be available this autumn.

Working together

Collaborations such as this are effective when the parties involved want similar behavioural outcomes. Frost, at Resource Futures, told Circular how one project linked utilities – such as electricity, gas and water – with waste through a common message: to stop wasting resources.

“It was fascinating to get all those people around a table and say, ‘how are we going to have this resource conversation?’ It’s all linked to resources – let’s not talk about our individual silo streams.”

Frost adds that the need to hear common messaging from other parts of the value chain is important. “Brands talk to citizens in a very different way from local authorities,” she says. “That different voice is a powerful addition to the recycling conversation.”

Brands talk to citizens in a very different way from local authorities. That different voice is a powerful addition to the recycling conversation.

Recycle Now was established in 2004 as the national voice of recycling for England and Northern Ireland. It aims to get organisations – be they local authorities, brands or retailers – talking to citizens about recycling, and to use its insights, messages and campaign materials to encourage change.

Through channels including social media, out-of-home advertising and national radio and PR, it provides communication assets that can be tailored by local authorities.

Craig Stephens, consumer marketing and campaigns manager at Recycle Now, said: “Making recycling communications as effective and as consistent as possible is key to driving better recycling across the UK, both in terms of missed capture and reducing contamination.”

Wrap, which runs Recycle Now, also recently increased its behaviour-change capabilities by partnering with specialists Behaviour Change. Its aim is to scale up interventions to help achieve net zero with a focus on individual consumption.

Making recycling communications as effective and as consistent as possible is key to driving better recycling across the UK.

Wrap also runs several public-facing campaign brands that focus on particular streams, including Love Food Hate Waste, Love Your Clothes, and Clear on Plastics. “The success behind all of Wrap’s citizen-facing campaigns is its ability to use behavioural insights to deliver hard-hitting emotive campaigns that resonate with people,” says Stephens.

“A huge success factor is Wrap’s citizen segmentation study, which enables all the [campaign] brands to target specific segments of society with relevant messages and via appropriate communication channels that will reach them effectively.”

Stephens adds: “Today, recycling has become a habit for most people, known in behavioural science as an automatic ‘system 1’ action. But as recycling rates have risen, so has the presence of contamination in the recycling system. So, now our task, collectively, is not only to increase the capture of recycling, but also to improve and refine the quality of recycling across the UK.

“Recycle Now believes this needs to be done through more thoughtful ‘system 2’ thinking – where a moment of deeper analysis and consideration comes into play.”

The mood of the nation

behavioural science
Part of Hubbub’s campaign in Leeds where members of the public can use their cigarette butts to vote on a question.

Recycle Week, which runs in September and is now in its 19th year, is Recycle Now’s annual large-scale campaign. It allows local authorities, retailers and national brands to get involved with recycling messaging.

Each year a theme is chosen to reflect the “mood” of the nation. Last year, with COP26 on the horizon, it was climate change. This year’s theme is “Get Real” with a focus on improving recycling, tackling recycling myths and reducing resident confusion.

Among the UK population, recall of Recycle Week is 11%, while 82% of people who saw or heard about Recycle Week in 2021 reported changing their behaviour as a result – which amounts to 4.7 million people.

Stephens explains that other, more focused campaigns are needed throughout the year, such as the recent “Repeat the Cycle” campaign, which focused on encouraging people to recycle plastic bags and wrapping at supermarket front-of-store locations.

While these campaigns focus on particular materials or actions, nudges at the point of recycling – or changes to make the system as intuitive as possible – can be the factor that triggers people to finally act.

For instance, Hubbub’s work in Leeds revealed that people spent less than two seconds at a bin and that changing the shape of an aperture to a circle for a bottle, helped increase collection of target materials.

Tags, stickers and labels on bins or recyclable items can also be very effective. Trials by Recycle Now, with Boots and Radox, found that the addition of a sticker to the front of a bottle, delivering a simply-worded prompt to recycle, resulted in a 91% recycle rate compared with 86% without.

Connected messaging

Several years ago, a campaign in Greater Manchester called ‘Right Stuff Right Bin’ used highly visible red and green bin tags to denote whether a bin was contaminated or good, with a warning that repeat offenders would not have their bins emptied any more.

Its pilot resulted in contamination falling by 61%. At the time, an extra team member went out with the bin crews to talk to residents – an effective, if costly, intervention – but could the equivalent now be done with technology?

Messaging communicated via smartphones has certainly been successful in the past. Reward4Waste, which ran a small digital deposit return scheme (DRS) trial in Dublin using its app, sent out reminders the night before collections and got a 94% return rate.

Because a phone is personal to you, it is easy to nudge and communicate.

“Because a phone is personal to you, it is easy to nudge and communicate. When you return something using the app, you get a ‘well done, you’ve helped’ message,” explains Reward4Waste co-founder Tony McGurk, adding that he is now looking at pushing out pre-recorded “thank you for recycling” messages from famous people.

Another feature of the app was its ability to show the recycling performance of the individual compared with the performance of others in the community – making it feel like a collective effort.

While positive reinforcement is great, Miller, of Corporate Culture, says that “sticks may be needed” for people who deliberately don’t recycle – such as Pay as You Throw (PAYT) for residual waste.

Resource Futures’ Frost agrees: “We might be back at the point where PAYT is on the table again… I think we at least need to have the option to use it. Society has moved on.”

Ellis adds that, even though not recycling has become more socially unacceptable over time, Hubbub’s preferred focus is making positive behaviours the norm. He says: “We’re big fans of the current campaign Bike is Best, which focuses on people switching to cycling for shorter journeys, rather than talking about what’s wrong with driving.”

We’re big fans of the current campaign Bike is Best, which focuses on people switching to cycling for shorter journeys.

Equally, there are other approaches to reducing the impact of household waste apart from recycling – such as tackling consumption.

While at Bristol Waste, Frost worked on the Waste Nothing campaign, aimed at getting individual households to embrace a zero-waste ethos.

It targeted one subject area each month, such as cleaning products or clothing, and took participants on an educational journey. They reduced their general waste by 70% and increased recycling by up to 75% by making different choices about what they consumed.

Frost says: “It shows you can nudge people and inform them, and support them in changing their behaviour, even when none of the supply issues around them change. We didn’t introduce any new collection service. But the difficulty is scaling that from your pilot to a whole city.”

Wheelie bin
An example of a campaign by Norwich recycles.

Zhang, of UKHSA, believes that driving further improvements and achieving sustainable behaviour change will require “ongoing engagement, participation and representation of the people whose behaviour the intervention seeks to change”.

She adds that a co-design and participatory approach, such as the UK climate assembly, is an example of best practice here, as it is one “associated with fairness, effectiveness and trust in behaviour change interventions”.

When it comes to recycling, targeted behaviour-change campaigns, based on a proper assessment of the situation, have proved their worth. Removing barriers can pay dividends, as can the use of clear messaging, incentives, disincentives and normalising desired behaviours.

Combining these tailored approaches with emotive, memorable national campaigns – backed up by supportive systems and timely nudges – is an effective way to drive change.

The challenge is to use this toolkit of ideas while the country waits for consistent collections and extended producer responsibility to come into play. It’s hard to drive change and put out consistent messages when the system itself is inconsistent and confusing.

Hopefully, the situation should untangle itself over the coming years as we tackle the wider environmental challenge that is carbon net zero.

Research has shown that spill-over effects – where people adopting one pro-environmental behaviour are more likely to also take up others – are key for nudging positive recyclers towards a generally lower carbon lifestyle.

As with recycling, the answers lie in making sure that “doing the right thing” makes sense to people and can easily be put into action.

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