Recycling - convincing sceptics

29th of January 2015
Recycling - convincing sceptics

As legislation continues to throw more challenges to local and national governments on increasing recycling rates, how do they persuade the sceptics to join the cause? Ceris Burns, managing director of specialist PR agency Ceris Burns International, offers advice on the best way to communicate with this hard-to-reach audience, inspired by the results of independent research into attitudes towards recycling.

Where once there was rubbish – now there is recycling. The transformation that our waste services have gone through in recent years has been nothing short of remarkable. The switch from thinking of rubbish as waste to merely throw away; to something that can be repurposed for use again, has happened in a relatively short period of time, touching both domestic households and big business – and everywhere in between.

It’s no exaggeration to say that recycling has become ingrained in our daily lives. However, it would be a mistake to assume that everyone is a convert to the cause. National and local government are faced with a constant challenge in terms of meeting various materials related targets, one of the most important being to increase the number of people participating in local schemes.

One of the big tests is to encourage people to recycle more in the face of ever-changing legislation. The next big shift is being ushered in by the revised Waste Framework Directive. This lays out a specific requirement, by January 1 2015, to set up separate collections of paper, plastic, metal and glass as a minimum. Collectors of these wastes must gather these materials separately, unless it is not necessary to provide high quality recyclates; or it is not technically, environmentally or economically practicable (TEEP).

This means that co-mingled collections, where various items for recycling – such as paper, plastic and cans are placed in the same bin – should not be the ‘norm’. Instead, mixed dry recyclables must be collected separately, and not re-mixed later. In the words of an Environment Agency briefing: “Co-mingling will only be permissible after 2015 where it provides high quality recyclates, or where separate collection is not practicable.”

The variation in the way services are organised in different local authority areas, including the types of materials that can and can’t be collected for recycling, already causes confusion – so communications campaigns have many of issues to tackle. Finding out what makes your target audience tick is one of the first tasks when planning your communications – so attitudes and aspirations need to be taken into account.

Independent research

In order to get some answers, Ceris Burns International recently commissioned Mindlab to undertake some independent research into attitudes towards recycling. The main finding, and perhaps the most encouraging, was that people with a negative view of recycling are more likely to change their mindsets after seeing positive messages about the benefits. Their subconscious thinking was changed after seeing positive images, resulting in a shift in attitude, from viewing recycling as unimportant, to seeing it as a significant activity that could make a difference.

200 people completed an online test that consisted of questions regarding their current recycling behaviour and attitudes to recycling. They then viewed either positive or negative images and messages about recycling; followed by an implicit test measuring how important they felt recycling was; finishing by answering questions about their intentions to recycle in the future. The test group included a wide range of ages and professions, located across England, Scotland, Ireland and Northern Ireland.

Other key findings of the survey were:

• 44 per cent of respondents said they probably wouldn’t make the effort to take their recycling elsewhere if they didn’t have facilities at work

• Just over half of the respondents would encourage work colleagues to recycle

• 78 per cent of respondents said they had recycling bins at work, indicating that while recycling facilities are widespread, there is room for improvement

• 52 per cent said they are confused about what they can and can’t recycle

• 69 per cent of respondents preferred leaflets as the main method of receiving information about recycling services

• Only half of respondents avoid buying products with excessive packaging.

The research results make for interesting reading and are a useful barometer – indicating current patterns of feeling and suggesting possible future actions. The results have been used to produce a best practice guide, which offers advice on achieving the best possible results from communications campaigns aimed at increasing recycling rates. It includes a number of recommendations in the shape of practical steps organisations and local authorities can take to achieve results, some of which I’ll share with you.

Fewer than half of respondents said they wouldn’t bother to take their recycling home with them if easily accessible facilities didn’t exist in the workplace. This indicates a gap in the market for businesses to recruit recycling champions at work. By identifying ‘cheerleaders’ for the recycling cause companies can strengthen their communications campaigns, as these passionate advocates for recycling can help to ensure that key messages and materials are displayed throughout the workplace. They can also be a conduit for feedback from their colleagues on the kinds of materials they would like to recycle, and play a role in ensuring the appropriate facilities are installed.

Our research indicates that, perhaps unsurprisingly, confusion still reigns about what people can and can’t recycle. The need for clear and concise communications has, therefore, never been more pressing. Materials that emphasise imagery over text will have a longer shelf life and reach a wider audience, which is especially important in areas that have a high rate of turnover in population, and where a number of different languages are spoken.

Meaningful communication

It’s also important to avoid ‘information overload’. Another outcome from our research showed that most respondents preferred to receive communications only when changes are made to their recycling service/system. Therefore communications should be carefully planned and used sparingly – hitting the right spot first time, without the need for clarifications or follow-ups.

To conclude, we might live in the internet age, where we’re all constantly connected to the information super highway via phones and tablets – but over half of our respondents said they preferred good old leaflets as a method of communication. This is a smart bet when recycling calendars are finalised, as it’s much easier to consult a leaflet on the kitchen pin board than log on to your chosen device to check which bin will be collected on a certain date. However, the internet ‘scored’ second highest, so a mix of different communication methods would be the way to go.

One thing is certain – the recycling genie is never going to be put back in the bottle now. However, to keep the momentum going and encourage more uptake in local schemes, communications can play a huge role in changing hearts and minds. 


Our Partners

  • ISSA Interclean
  • EFCI
  • EU-nited