Are we Getting the Message?

robin-daviesTimed perfectly for Recycle Week and WRAP’s consistency framework announcement, Robin Davies expands on Serco and Future Thinking’s newest report, which looks at the recycling confusion that is holding us back in delivering our national recycling targets.


istock_38564992_largeThis week Serco and its research partner Future Thinking published new and important insights into the recycling confusion that is holding us back in delivering our national recycling targets. The research highlights that residents are simply ‘confused’ to see that items say they can be recycled on their product packaging, but which are not accepted as part of their local recycling scheme.

This confusion leads to both frustration on the part of the consumer and potential contamination for local authorities and their waste and recycling industry partners.

Local government does a very important job in promoting recycling and in encouraging residents to recycle. This job has been made increasingly difficult with challenging impacts of austerity and competing demands for money and staff resources that would otherwise be devoted to this important cause. For too long local government has shouldered too much of the blame with flagging recycling rates and of being accused of not doing enough and not doing its job properly.

I think it’s time for a fresh perspective on tackling consumer ‘confusion’ by reviewing and changing the recycling symbols often seen on product packaging and which are often very different to those seen in local authority recycling schemes.

It’s time for simpler and more standardised approach to waste and recycling communications which involves manufacturers, retailers, waste industry bodies and local authorities working together to develop a set of symbols that provide consistency of message from when the product is produced right upto the point collected or presented for recycling.

The research points to the confusion around recycling plastics and a complex set of recycling symbols placed on products which are bewildering, with some items within each category accepted by local authorities and other items which are not.
The food industry has already shown what can be achieved through partnership working with retailers, producers and government working together to develop and implement a consistent traffic light system of nutritional food labelling that has been universally applied across retailers and food producers throughout the UK.

It’s now time for local authorities, industry and retailers to move forward together and agree with a simplified and standardised set of recycling symbols that are consistent with what can be accepted and processed by local authorities and their waste and recycling partners. A better, simpler scheme would clearly show those items that shouldn’t be recycled (including plastic films and carrier bags) which have become a significant source of contamination over recent years and have led to reduced recycling performance and additional disposal costs.

With the advent of the MRF code of practice there has been greater visibility and transparency of materials passing through local authority recycling facilities, including those rejected materials that are often (but not always) as a direct result of resident confusion.

Maybe it’s time for local government to consider a minimum suite of materials that should either be collected at the kerbside or accepted through local bring facilities across all local authority areas, but be allowed to retain the flexibilities to organise collections and bring facilities in a way that best suits local needs and circumstances.

A simplified and more consistent approach to communications (including the product labelling and packaging) plus a degree of standardisation would help us consistently get the message across without taking away valued local freedoms and flexibilities in relation to segregation or separation of materials, in methods of containment and in collection frequency.

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