Blog: Will behaviour change be key to the success or failure of the circular economy?

The first series of 6 joint SUEZ/CIWM webinars were such a success, we have created a second series to explore a range of new topics in more detail. These 90-minute webinars, a direct response to the feedback received, allow us to invite more panellists, and dig a little deeper into the issue in question, with the new topics also having been selected to reflect the interest of the attendees from the previous events.

This second webinar in the new series of deep dive sessions jointly hosted by SUEZ and CIWM explored how we can help encourage, support and adapt consumer behaviour and choices as part of effectively delivering the circular economy and inspire them to make the right choices sooner rather than later. Our expert panel, drawn from different consumer engagement perspectives, discussed if localism will drive local success, how we can effectively support consumers to make the right choices and what has worked to reduce recycling contamination and whether this could be replicated when considering reuse, repair and other circular options, and finally what can be done to drive better acceptance of circular economy solutions and what role there is for focusing on greater consumer responsibility? The webinar also considered lessons and learnings from the COVID-19 lockdown, and whether the increase in protective packaging and single use items will ultimately undermine the uptake in reusable and refillable solutions and slow the move towards the circular economy.

Dr. Adam Read (External Affairs Director at SUEZ recycling and recovery UK and the webinar chair) and CIWM’s Helen Chaplin reflect on a very interesting webinar, consider the key talking points, and look behind the poll results.

Which engagement tools are successful in supporting behaviour change?

When asked the question “do the public understand the circular economy?”, our panellists were in agreement that the public didn’t however, Annette Dentith (Principal Waste Manager at Devon County Council) and Sarah Divall (Creative Co-ordinator at Hubbub) concurred that they do understand many of the practical examples and sustainable options, but don’t recognise the phrase ‘circular economy’. This is why it is so crucial to develop effective tools to engage the public and help them understand not only what the circular economy is, but how they can play a small role, and the impact this could have on global warming too, an issue that remains front and centre in the media currently.

Annette discussed in some detail the tools used in Devon to drive behaviour change, including the use of social media to engage younger residents. It’s an ideal platform to share ideas, videos and blogs, whilst they have also created an online recipe book for leftover foods to help reduce food waste. Devon have been very active working in schools and communities over the last two decades, and in recent years have created a Scout badge specific to recycling and offered support to their local repair cafes in terms of publicity and start-up activities.

Steve Bates (a well-known Behaviour Change & Communications Expert and Director at the Mobius Agency) created a hierarchy of how to engage people and change their behaviour, dating back almost a decade or more, but which is still relevant today. Although originally based on encouraging recycling, it can also be applied to the circular economy. His pyramid of six steps goes from the most effective option to the least effective option. The hierarchy starts with removing the option that you don’t want them to do as the most effective preference (banning specific materials for example). However, this is difficult to achieve as it often involves changing policies. The second tier involves making the desired behaviour the cheapest, which uses financial incentives to get the change we need (making recycled items cheaper by reducing tax on them); but it needs to be done to a meaningful level to actually drive changes in attitude and behaviour. When done correctly it can be powerful in motivating change. Making the desired behaviour the easiest is the third tier; if there are two options to reach the same goal it is always the easiest that is taken by most people. Therefore, it is important to make the solution easy to encourage behaviour change (access to on the go recycling bins for example). The fourth tier is to make the required behaviour the most desirable. This will often involve needing to redefine what is desirable in today’s society as different people have different views of what is acceptable (making it cool, using brand influencers etc.). The penultimate tier in the hierarchy is to just ask people, which does work to some degree but it isn’t ideal as it can take a long time to have even the smallest of effects. The final tier is to do nothing and hope for the best. People will eventually realise they need to do something different, but it can take generations to change, and in terms of the circular economy and climate change this timeframe just isn’t available.

He suggested that we need to use behaviour change communications to embrace the circular economy and make it more relevant to people in all sorts of socio-demographic groups. He suggested segmenting the market to get the biggest gains, for example, engaging with a younger audience initially using on-line influencers and web-based content as we need to convince them to embrace the circular economy before they become mainstream consumers.

On the back of Steve’s hierarchy, we asked the audience in the first poll which behavioural intervention is most likely to drive a circular economy for mobile phones (as an example), and the feedback was interesting with increasing access being the most common response (28%) (tier 3), but only just ahead of banning their sale (24%) (tier 1) and using modulated fees to drive up their recycling (24%) (tier 2).

Adam questioned whether we have been wasting our time trying to drive recycling up through campaigning and information sharing when there was more demand to ban the sale of them and use modulated fees to reflect recyclability and repairability. Steve disagreed stating that if one thing doesn’t work, then we should move onto the next most effective thing. He stated it was a complex issue as the phone market is built to drive the demand for upgrades, although Steve was interested in the idea of renting handsets and that this might help to suppress some of the desirability that is associated with certain new handsets and models. He suggested looking at the hierarchy as a ladder until you reach your preferred targets, which seemed sensible advice for a practitioner. Annette reflected that the rental economy is starting to gain traction, after all it is quite normal to lease cars these days and as more people get involved so it will become the norm. Adam commented on planned Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) forms coming into effect from 2023 and how this will also help to drive change initially around packaging (which will become more expensive if it isn’t designed to be circulated through the system) whilst over time other products will become part of the EPR framework (including textiles, waste electrical equipment and tyres).

Sarah noted that not everyone is interested in sustainability and as such this won’t get them hooked in trying out new things, so it’s really important to make any change required ‘easy, fun and cheap’. That way, people will make sustainable choices without even realising it, which is in her opinion the ideal outcome. Sarah explained that Hubbub’s ballot bin is a good example of this approach, as people are distracted with voting with their cigarette butts about who is the best footballer (Messi or Ronaldo) rather than the act of putting litter in the bin. In Hubbub’s ‘Leeds by example’ campaign they made the recycling bins large and brightly coloured, with a picture of the item to be recycled and the opening the right size for the item to make them easier for the public to use than the litter bins.

Sarah also discussed her experience running Hubbub’s vlog (video blog) as they experimented with different communication methods, some just work better than others, but trial and error is an important learning curve. They have now created videos answering questions in a simple way and explaining processes by showing how things are made, how they work, and taking tours of recycling plants, to demystify what they want the public to do. Their podcast does a similar thing and gets the message across in an easy way, where audiences can also learn something too, and this is working as their audience numbers are growing rapidly.

Annette recalled a time when they used celebrities in campaigns (think food waste and recycling) but now find them too expensive to use. She suggested that vlogging and blogging are better as they don’t cost as much, and still influence some of their target audiences, but they need to be planned to ensure they are hitting the right demographic.

Claire Chu (Consultant at Eunomia Research & Consulting) discussed how in her time as a Recycling Officer at SUEZ she had used doorknocking campaigns to directly relate to consumers and their real-life issues with regards to waste and recycling. She also discussed the three-tag system, for contaminated bins, to visualise the problem for the resident and which delivered 85% success when it came to changing behaviour after the first tag alone, whilst the second tag would up the intervention with a letter being sent to the resident explaining what they had done and how to ensure they got it right going forward. If they continued to offend, then a third tag would be issued and this would lead to an educational visit from the local recycling team to their resident’s home to help understand why they were struggling and how to not contaminate their recycling. Claire discussed how the recycling crews initially needed encouragement and feedback from Claire and the Council to let them know that their time was valued in tagging the offending bins, how it was followed up and what happened to the residents whose bins they tagged. The key message for the crews was that this would ultimately reduce contamination and this shorten the time they spent dealing with contaminated loads and putting out tags etc., and this seemed to work both in terms of the crews but also in terms of the quality of material being presented. But could this approach be adapted for promoting the circular economy, perhaps not right now, not until it is better understood and levels of engagement are higher.

Going forward, Steve would like to see more money spent on communications by the larger companies as, ultimately, they are the ones that need to cover the costs of the items they put into the system under the reformed EPR system. He urged companies that communications is an investment, and not a cost, a message he has been sharing with public authorities for the last 20 years, and he has the evidence to back up this claim.

Annette encouraged local councils to involve councillors early in discussions about communication channels and messages,  and make them understand the full detail of what is happening and what the aim is for any activity, in order to keep them on board when the public start to complain or the media start reporting on the interventions etc. Working together with other local authorities means you can share resources and enthusiasm for a project across a range of councillors, but that does require similar services, materials and messages to be agreed upon from the outset, which hasn’t always been easy, although Devon have found a way to do this year in year out.

How do you measure behaviour change?

Annette commented just how difficult it is to measure the impact of behaviour change campaigns in terms of creating a business case to invest in future campaigns. However, the panel recognised that street surveys, social media shares, the value of volunteer hours, and carbon emissions are all relevant measures and that it can’t only be about tonnage anymore. Adam commented that tonnage is a blunt instrument, but if we believe that behaviour change is core to any future evolution than showcasing its impact on tonnage will remain important.

Sarah reflected on Hubbub as they haven’t found a metric system which fits all yet, and they use different measurement frameworks for each campaign, measuring different variables with different campaigns where appropriate. They are trying to move away from other blunt metrics like number of views, on-line shares and visits to websites etc. and focus more on the changing of attitudes of the target audience by using longitudinal studies. Which sounded like an exciting progressive development, which all the panel were supportive of.

What have we learnt from COVID?

Much has changed during COVID, with more on-line engagement and consumer decisions and behaviours in terms of local purchasing and recycling etc., so what can we learn from this going forward in terms of delivering behavioural change and embedding circular economy principles in everyday life.

Annette suggested that the COVID outbreak remains an opportunity to push the circular economy with the wider public as they’ve had some real-world experience of both sharing and having to innovate, both principles that the circular economy promotes. She hopes that the public will continue, with their help, reusing and repairing where appropriate. She identified that sale of sewing machines had risen during lockdown, but mooted that this isn’t really in line with the circular economy, better that people were renting or leasing them when needed, or sharing them locally amongst themselves (or even buying them as a consortium). Clearly this demonstrates the difficulties of the circular economy. However, she was pragmatic and remarked that not everyone will continue with the changes we have seen in recent months.

Annette and Steve were impressed with the response to the second poll, which identified that the majority of the audience hadn’t purchased many items of clothing online since March 2020. They were both expecting more items to be purchased as people were bored whilst stuck at home and were looking for something to do, but clearly the audience was more switched on to the environmental agenda than the general public. One audience member identified that young children grow a lot in six months, and that was one of the reasons they had been buying new clothing online, something that Adam could relate to with his eight-year-old son as he was preparing to return to the new school year.

Sarah was somewhat surprised with the results of the third poll as she thought people would be using more plastic at home because they were afraid of using renewables because of the risk of infection, and would have preferred single use.  The strong message from the audience was that cardboard packaging had been the major materials increase at home, which Claire agreed with reflecting that this is in line with the significant uptake in home deliveries etc. Comments from the audience also suggested that some households were using lockdown to have a clear out to create space for multiple people working from home, which might impact on material flows, whilst others were generating less waste in general resulting in one of the material streams looking more prevalent than before.

The panel were interested in how the audience felt about the economy recovering post lockdown and what signs they were seeing in terms of a new normal, and this was the focus of the forth poll question. Surprisingly, it wasn’t getting back to commuting, or using a refillable cup whilst out and about that were the main indicators of recovery, nor was it the increasing levels of litter (even with the amount of media attention on this) but it was the Government actively talking about waste & resource sector policy reform, alongside COVID and BREXIT that hinted of real progress.  Annette commented that everyone in our sector is pleased to see the government talking about the waste and resource strategy again, and that maybe people aren’t getting out enough to be reusing their reusable coffee cups yet, but that this will come in the near future with schools returning and many workplaces expected to open in September.

Adam summarised that COVID has been considered as a disruptor, but in reality, is has been our opportunity to design the new norm, and an opportunity that doesn’t come around very often. However, he pointed out that if we feel like we are in the new norm now then we’ve probably got it wrong because we’ve defaulted back to something quite familiar and similar to the old norm. This is the time to define what we want from materials resource use, from consumers in terms of their responsibility and the service versus product debate.

Is it better to focus on national or local behaviour change?

Sarah was really interested that 60% of the audience who voted in our fifth poll supported national level interventions as being the most effective (per capita targeted), as she believed that really local behaviour change, driven by communities, is a more effective way to promote behaviour change. Successful national behaviour change campaigns such as Blue Planet with its stark imagery, and the plastic bag charge were suggested by other panellists as having more potential than trying to engage a single village. But Sarah suggested that following up a national campaign with local interventions is the most effective way of embedding new habits and improving understanding. Annette was also surprised by the results as she believes that Devon is a good place to make the circular economy work due to its rural location and strong community spirit. In her experience, communities tend to work together more closely in rural settings, enabling local initiatives to broaden quite quickly, but she recognised that one good local initiative need not be easy to replicate elsewhere, they need local community champions and passions. Steve related the results of the poll back to his hierarchy, stating that effects are felt locally first, but depending on where in the hierarchy the campaign is being targeted will determine if a national or local campaign will suit better.

Another issue discussed by the panellists was how to get the circular economy on the radar of young adults, with Claire noting that the circular economy is not really on the national curriculum, yet it should be a central pillar for all schools going forward given the policy reforms outlined in the waste and resources strategy, including issues like EPR and DRS. However, we can’t wait for 3 years for these policies to happen, we need to do much more in the meantime to push along behaviour change at the local level or the circular economy might fail before it really grabs hold.

Sarah also discussed how SMEs have different priorities, and being sustainable isn’t always feasible if it is lower down their agenda. Adam revealed how Suez takes customers and potential customers on the green procurement journey, helping them with their supply chain, and issues like discussing decarbonisation if the opportunity presents. Sarah suggested making it desirable (from Steve’s hierarchy) for SMEs, because customers will be keen for the shift towards greater sustainability too. She stated that small businesses need support, however they will also be driven to change by what bigger companies are doing, such as John Lewis and Selfridges, and the influence they have on their supply chain, but also as champions of change.

Where does dematerialisation/decarbonisation/setting carbon targets fit into this?

When asked how we can persuade people to dematerialise their lives, support net zero, and still end up happier, Steve suggested making it more desirable, easy to do and ultimately the default option. He also pointed out that it is not an overnight fix, but a combination of small changes over time. Annette referred to Bhutan where the people lead relatively simple lives without much materialisation, but are considered as one of the happiest places on the planet, proving that it is possible to achieve happiness without materialisation. Sarah referred to the lockdown period and how certain luxuries were removed from daily lives, yet we continued to get on with things, but since lockdown has eased it this new normal has been tested as these luxury options become available again. Claire suggested that people are always going to want stuff, whether that makes them happy or not, but reminded the audience that there are many opportunities to rent and share materials that already happen and we must share these examples – just think Netflix. She suggested we need to make this the norm for other material streams as well, and that will need action from leading brands etc.

Steve agreed with the 75% of the audience (of those that voted on the final poll) that we should have personal carbon targets (and credits) if we really want to drive change. He debated the complexity and difficulty of how these could be calculated and managed as the calculations would need a level of transparency and proof that the actions have either created or saved a certain about of carbon. Adam identified a number of apps that already exist that can help people calculate and track carbon footprints, and as more people that get involved with these so we will trigger a competition between who can get the lowest carbon footprint with friends and family. And at this point it will become the norm.

Claire suggested that the public are ready to get on board with decarbonisation and climate change adaption stating that COVID has helped people realise that it is easy to cut their own emissions and carbon footprints, but she remained uncertain about how easily it will stick.

Annette shared how Devon County Council’s climate emergency team are organising a citizen’s assembly to discuss a range of topics and specific questions openly ‘in public’ in order for them to help get Devon ready for 2050 zero carbon.


During the webinar, and discussion between the panellists focused on their firm belief that behaviour change must be part of the solution if we are to achieve a successful circular economy. But they all recognised that behaviour change is hard to measure, often expensive upfront, can take a long time to deliver and is thus often considered ‘too difficult’.

However, the panellists recognise that it is a tool that can be used in combination with others to help drive forward the circular economy, and that there is still lots of research to be done on what will be the most effective mechanisms and messages. Now is the time to experiment and see which methods have the biggest impact, what with the COVID pandemic having provided us with some valuable lessons, which we must build upon. Undoubtedly, there is a further discussion needed around whether national or local campaigns are more effective, and how to convince the population to dematerialise their lives, but there is momentum and there is certainly plenty of public and media interest.

Sarah suggested making it easy, simple and fun to engage consumers to make the circular economy work for them at their individual level, including finding the right terminology and consistency of messages, whereas Steve suggested there is an immediate need to make it (the circular economy) the norm so there is no need to define or discuss it anymore. Claire agreed, suggesting that systematic change will drive behaviour change, but we need to frame that change.

As always, we would like to thank our panellists for joining the webinar, and providing their insights and experiences on behaviour change. And we would like to thank the audience for participating in the polls and asking so many great questions – so many in fact that we have included a Q&A sheet here with some of the ones we didn’t get around to asking.

If you would like to watch the recording you can click here, whilst you can register for any of the four upcoming deep dive sessions here, and why not join the ongoing discussions with other CIWM members on all things ‘hot and current’ on Connect and have your say.

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