Recycling Champions

richard-featherstoneRecycling champions are closer than you think. Richard Featherstone offers a thought provoking observation and solution while sitting on the recycling plateau in an updated version of his article first featured in the May CIWM Journal


Recycling performance has flat-lined. It sounds like waste prevention strategists are getting despondent about the prospects of reaching recycling and waste reduction targets in the next few years. Who can blame them?

The assumption is that, to increase recycling performance, we must spend lots more money on intense services and infrastructure improvements. However, as the public sector has a shrinking pot of money there is nothing we can do but sit back until 2020 and say it was beyond our control. Should we let the word “impossible” enter our thinking? Even if we don’t succeed it is our duty and responsibility to show that we did everything we could. So here’s one of the crucial variables we could try in an attempt to maintain recycling levels or even push a little towards the 50% target.

A Bold Statement

When it comes to looking for ways to increase recycling we automatically focus on the public. We spend significant amounts on advertising and marketing as if this is the only way to convince them to do the right thing. But let’s for a moment turn our attention to our operatives: our high-vis-jacket-wearing asset.

There is one specific measure that industry managers could take that is of marginal cost but would have an enduring impact – never mind the public – there are 118,000 (Digest of Waste and Resource Statistics 2015 Edition, Defra) potential recycling champions already out there who we could treat more as an asset: I’m referring to the waste industry operatives. These are workers who don the high-vis jackets every day, who tread our streets and are face to face with the public. My question is, are they getting enough line management support to think recycling, encourage recycling and promote recycling? After all, they are the front line and most effective face to face ambassadors for the industry.

The Problem Manifest

Think of the number of times you hear about the public’s negative reaction to recycling because ”the collectors don’t seem to bother much: why should I”?

The times when the public are walking along the pavement and see a recycling sack being thrown into the back of what is ostensibly a refuse vehicle are too common for comfort. This act of miscommunication does long-term and sometimes irreparable damage to public motivation and performance on recycling. Managers should recognise these small but significant details and come up with team tactics to avoid them. For instance it might be justifiable for the operative to be proactive and explain that the recycling sack will be sorted later on due to improved technology down at the sorting plant. It becomes vital for the operative to be aware of these situations and be ready to communicate an appropriate response.

hi-vizWhat we want is for recycling to be instinctive through managing behaviour change. So often we can see operatives working really well with the public at recycling centres to put the recyclable materials in the right place. Yet there are no separate bins in their tea room. We are not helping to make recycling normal but only a job that needs doing.

With my reuse experience I can see the contrast where it is normal for the managers and operatives to demonstrate their commitment to reuse every day in every situation. They know where their incentive comes from: a determination to alleviate poverty through reuse or because they hate to see good furniture go to waste; often it is a combination of both.

Of course there are good examples of recycling teams that are committed and we should hear more from them about how they have turned things around.

It’s all about personal belief. A change of mind-set is called for and this can be done over time with coaching – as distinct from line management. If the concept of managing combined with coaching works in the sporting profession why should it not be applicable for our line of work?

In the recycling field we do not quite see the same evidence of personal commitment, attitude or abhorrence of unnecessary waste in every plastic bottle, drinks can, newspaper, or beer bottle being picked up.

Coaching Sessions In Detail

A template training session plan for coaching is in draft which will support line management staff. It can be delivered as a programme to operatives at the workplace or when out in the street doing the job.

Change of mind-set – it’s all about finding out what their personal belief is in recycling.

The coaching will help to develop a personal understanding of how significant they are as operatives. In the eyes of the public they are the professionals, the experts, they are in-the-know. When it comes to whether the public recycle or not, the operatives are setting the example to be followed. Seen to be doing the right thing is important, for example, can operatives sort the contamination from a recycling bin or bag it’s easy to see? In this type of situation the message to the public could be reported as, “you nearly got it right, we had to do a bit extra this time. We’re trying harder, you can too”.

What Can Be Done In Practical Terms?

How could we achieve a change in operative behaviour you might ask? Think about this as an outline of possible managerial and coaching actions:

  • Setting out the service specification and job description to make clear expectations about recycling;
  • Better consultation with operatives for their ideas on how to increase recycling within their jobs
  • Elevate the recognition and value of the work of operatives
  • Coaching sessions to support line management
  • Organise meetings and workshops for operatives and line managers – if we at a senior level gain inspiration and motivation from networking, why shouldn’t operatives?

It might be unrealistic to change the personal recycling commitment of all the existing operatives. The alternative is to introduce more emphasis on working as a recycling ambassador at the recruitment stage. In two years it could transform the culture of the workforce.

Of course, there will be some reading this who will have made great progress with positive team management towards the idea I’m articulating. The sector deserves to hear more about progress in waste team behaviour. Let us grasp the essence of focusing more on the potential of our operatives rather than just criticising the public.

The public will, over time, be inclined to follow a good example: it’s human nature. Our operatives in the high-vis jackets are made highly visible for health and safety reasons, so let’s make them highly visible for recycling reasons too.

Richard is an independent specialist and is a lifelong advocate of the principles and benefits of reuse. He has worked on the innovation of reuse services and the sector’s infrastructure for 25 years, most recently in London where he currently works on a project to reduce bulky waste on London housing estates. He is a founder member of the FRN and a fellow of the RSA.


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