Have Recycling Rewards Scheme Had Their Chips?

Gev-EduljeeSUEZ’s external affairs director, Gev Eduljee, ponders whether recycling reward schemes are still delivering success or, as a recent report seems to suggest, are they no longer driving improvements and could the Government’s money have been better spent elsewhere?

recycling-rosetteHave recycling reward schemes had their chips? The conclusions of the latest report by Brook Lyndhurst reviewing 28 extant schemes under the Government’s Reward and Recognition Fund are not encouraging. Not only was it difficult to separate out the different factors affecting recycling behaviour – a challenge given the complex mix of influences – but where it was possible to evaluate these schemes, the results were inconclusive at best.

They appeared to serve the function of an awareness-raising and communications drive, but in terms of their effectiveness “service provision factors were more important in determining changes in tonnages or participation than scheme design features”.

Not that this conclusion is new. Brook Lyndhurst’s interim report on the Fund’s performance was equally lukewarm, as were earlier reports on reward schemes from Eunomia for SERCO (2014), AEAT for Defra (2013), and going further back, AEAT for the Scottish Executive (2003). Work conducted elsewhere – for example by Yung Yau at the City University of Hong Kong – also concluded, with reference to schemes in the US, UK and Canada, that “the effectiveness of the reward or incentive schemes in promoting domestic waste recycling is doubtful”.

Yau’s statistical evaluation of recycling reward schemes in Hong Kong did find a positive effect, but under tightly circumscribed pilot conditions. Doubts remain over the long term viability of such schemes, especially when support funding runs out.

Nudge, Nudge Strategy

An example of the present and the previous government’s flagship “nudge” strategy, the scheme has been generously funded – £2m for the RRF. But rather than waiting for a proper analysis of the scheme’s outcomes, a further £5m was put into its successor the DCLG Recycling Reward Scheme, launched in 2014. Given the government’s claim that its policies are evidence-based, ideological zeal appears to have trumped a more rational policy response to the available evidence.

Havering-Card£5m might not seem a lot, but when our sector is fighting for the funding of pressing issues such as tackling waste crime, this money could have been more profitably directed to the Environment Agency, rather than raiding the Landfill Communities Fund for this purpose.

Preconceptions close to DCLG’s heart at the time also constrained eligibility to bid into the RRS, namely the insistence on having a weekly waste collection frequency. Yet recent improvements in recycling rate, accompanied by cost savings, have been achieved by local authorities experimenting with service changes such as varying bin size and collection frequencies, as the Brook Lyndhurst and other reports acknowledge.

And what of other preconceptions? If waste policy was truly evidence-based, the Government would set aside its aversion to pay as you throw and re-instate the option (originally contained in the Climate Change Act) for local authorities to pilot this measure. None of the standards arguments against PAYT (regressive, unfair on families) stack up when equally vital public services such as water, power and gas are charged for in this way. Moreover, the evidence for the efficacy of PAYT in reducing waste generation and raising recycling rates is compelling in a way that the case for recycling reward schemes is certainly not.

It is curious that PAYT is viewed as a tax and not as an incentive. Paying less for disposing of less, coupled with well-designed service arrangements and a properly funded householder engagement programme, has been universally recognised as a potent, cost-effective package of measures for raising recycling performance.


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