The Secret To Behaviour Change

Sarah Hargreaves, communications consultant at Resource Futures, says changes to services are often greeted with firm public resistance particularly where there is a lack of effective engagement to support and explain the changes. Here, she asks what’s the best way to encourage behaviour change across diverse communities?

We’re all impacted by waste – it’s one commonality we share the world over. In the UK we’re privileged to have comprehensive waste and recycling collections systems in place. In recent years many residents have seen reductions in their residual waste collections along with increases in recycling services.

We know in the sector why this is a positive trend, but these changes to services are often greeted with firm public resistance particularly where there is a lack of effective engagement to support and explain the changes. People inherently don’t like change, and waste and recycling can be a highly emotive area.

So it’s not surprising to see the connection being made between reactions to behaviour change programmes and that of the grief cycle (EnviroComms, 2016), with people only accepting change after first working through the varying emotions of denial, anger, bargaining and depression.

This is an exciting time to be working in the waste behaviour change field. It’s great to see large swathes of the population demanding more information to help them take active steps to reduce their environmental footprint, inspired into action by programmes like Blue Planet II.

But it’s also a challenging time. Local authorities anticipate a fall in recycling rates, a recent study by RECOUP shows that the quality of recycling being collected is reducing, and contamination levels are increasing. There are a number of factors at play here, including stricter material recycling facility controls and the impact of Asia closing its doors to waste material imports.

But is unlikely to be a coincidence that these issues arise alongside increased cuts to local governments, which are causing councils to make drastic decisions to save money. All too frequently it’s the waste communications budget that gets culled.

Million-Dollar Questions

It leaves us with two million-dollar questions: How do you ride the wave of proactivity and waste sensitisation to best effect within a context of reduced budgets? And what is the best way to encourage behaviour change across diverse communities?

The search for the ultimate campaign strategy will forever continue, but can there really be one ‘hero’ solution that will work across the UK – bearing in mind variations in ethnicity, religion, education, transience, deprivation levels and physical and mental health? And that’s before we even look at age variations and gender.

At Resource Futures we have worked extensively with local councils across the UK for many years and are yet to see evidence of a magic solution.

But what we do see is a wonderful wealth of behaviour change tactics being undertaken. And it is this mix of messaging strategies and channels that we believe is the best solution – there is no ‘one size fits all’, but multiple smaller strategies build bigger impacts. So, what are the options?

Traditional verses digital

Previously common traditional communications strategies of distributing leaflets to all households and doorstepping seem to be less common these days as budgets tighten. Yet ensuring residents know exactly what they can recycle in their local area is critical, especially as each council collection system still differs (although the WRAP consistency project quietly continues in the background). We’ve explored the realm of social media advertising to seek new cost-efficient ways to get information out to customers. It’s often surprising to see who’s actually looking at social channels these days – they are not restricted to younger age groups as some may fear, and social media can be a great way to involve people who would not normally engage in environmental messaging.

Making It Relevant

Converting personal usage to population usage is a powerful message – as illustrated by the wonderful quote “It’s only one straw, said 8 billion people”…(Anon). It’s why people who have visited a waste or recycling plant often have a very different attitude to waste, having seen their ‘two bags a week’ converted into the colossal context of the masses. So, making messages relevant can be a powerful strategy. Bristol Waste Company worked with Real World Visuals to create a video which compared the volume of waste generated in Bristol to the size of a hot air balloon, launching the video to coincide with the Bristol Balloon Fiesta. Our office statistics guru is often researching similar comparisons, linking tangible recycling impacts to popular events like a key local sporting event or festivals. It’s a great way to bring in new audiences. Did you know recycling 10 water bottles saves enough energy to power a shower for 8 minutes?

Shock Tactics Or Positivity?

Blue Planet II shook the world through its storylines illustrating the devastating impacts of plastics on our natural world. These shock tactics play a significant role in behaviour change, but their long-term impact, if used in isolation, is debateable and can result in people becoming desensitised or feeling powerless. Two award-winning campaigns we’ve had the pleasure of working with have shown how you can successfully build on these emotive triggers and turn passion into action. The Rubbish Diet, started by Karen Cannard in 2006, seeks to make people curious about waste and provides simple life solutions to help ‘slim your bin’. It’s proved a successful strategy and is a model that can be adapted for all kinds of campaigns – like encouraging local reuse and repair, or helping people reduce their single use plastic consumption. Zero Waste Week, set up by Rachelle Strauss, also uses positivity to share solutions and peer-to-peer experiences to empower people to reduce their waste. Set up in around 2008, the campaign has gained a large worldwide following and is helping ‘normalise’ recycling through the mass coverage Rachelle achieves each year.

Shaking The Stick

Enforcement – considered a contentious strategy by many a local councillor – is a tactic that definitely has a role to play in the behaviour change world. In some regions, enforcement is simply not an option, often for political reasons. In these instances, it’s worth considering the widescale impact of softer intervention projects. Take a look at the very successful ‘Slim My Waste – Feed My Face’ campaign by Bristol Waste this year. This project has no enforcement element to it at all, and yet some residents have taken the playful bin intervention as a suggestion of an official request – perhaps due to its citywide roll out or the ‘stickers on bin’ element.

If you’re concerned pure enforcement won’t work with residents in your area, you may be interested to hear that, whilst working on a door knocking project in the South West covering 8,000 homes, I heard the line “I’ll only recycle when you fine me if I don’t” from a lot more people than I expected, and from households across the economic spectrum.

In fact, the threat of a fine is often enough. Our enforcement work with councils across the UK has shown that fines and court prosecutions are rarely required, and that the majority of people will change their behaviour at a much earlier stage. It’s a strategy that works best to tackle specific issues in specific communities, where more encouraging communication strategies are not hitting home. But for persistent problems such as excess side waste or contamination, this can be a valuable complementary solution.

And that ultimately is the key – finding a complementary suite of campaigns that target individuals’ motivations is the best way to slowly chip away at unsustainable behaviours and build more recycling savvy communities. There is no ‘one hit wonder’, but rather a need for a variety of messages that frame the solution to hit a range of individual trigger points. Environmental or financial benefits; neighbourhood and community impacts; simplicity (life hacks), or brilliance in relation to science and innovation – each message variation will resonate with a different group and create more behaviour change ripples. At the end of the day most people do want to improve their lives, it’s human nature. And improving our relationship with waste and recycling will always have a positive impact.

So, the secret to behaviour change success? Keep communicating. Keep it varied. Hit different triggers. Nobody can force someone to change. But by helping people identify with a problem, and then offering solid solutions, we can slowly have a lasting impact.

Follow Resource Futures on Twitter or visit their website

Darrel Moore

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