Our research tracking attitudes to food waste and recycling shows that the vast majority of us want to ‘do the right thing’ but want help to act.
There are obvious financial benefits to individuals, families, businesses and councils in making the most of recycling and re-use (as well as environmental advantages), and it’s true, there has been good progress. So much so that more than 90% of us say we think recycling is important but the recycling rate across the UK is still less than 50%, and we still waste eight million tonnes of edible food a year. So how do we bridge that gap?
We know from our research that many of the barriers involve a strong element of poor engagement or communication. The main reason, consumers tell us, is that they are confused about how schemes work, and don’t know what happens to the items they recycle. It is a similar story with food waste: our research showed people were appalled by the amount of food wasted but often felt confused by date labels, how to store food, what to do with leftovers and so on.
The debate often focuses on how good the recycling or waste prevention ‘system’ is, but so often the communications – or engagement – aspect of this feels to me underplayed. So, my eye was caught this week by more fresh evidence about the central importance that good communications plays in helping people recycle more and waste less.
One of my colleagues alerted me to the fact that at the recent RWM - CIWM conference on resource efficiency, the strategic director of two English local authorities South Oxfordshire and Vale of White Horse (which topped a recycling performance table with a rate of more than 68%!) spoke powerfully about the importance of engaging and explaining as schemes roll out. This is as important for business waste schemes as it is for households. I used to live in Vale of White Horse and it was clear a lot of work went into making sure new collection schemes were well explained.
Customer communications in this sense is absolutely not about spin, propaganda, or simply knocking out a press release when the scheme is about to go live. Given what we know from our research – showing that people are willing and ready to act but need the knowledge and understanding to enable them to do so, it’s clear that communicating is a critical part of the mix.
This is why a big chunk of our work has gone into not only research which gives us the insights but also into the development of tried and trusted messaging and communication materials. These proven ‘tools’ are available to councils and others, free of charge.
We have worked with the two councils I mentioned earlier, so it’s encouraging to note the positive impact they believe our support has had.
Given the significant cost of waste management to local authorities, the benefits of effective recycling schemes in delivering significant efficiencies, and the potential to extract maximum ‘value’ from participation and the material collected, the benefits are as much commercial as environmental.
My concern is that at a time when all budgets – especially local authority budgets – are under severe pressure, investment in good communications with residents as well as good schemes is being cut drastically. Communications is always the first activity to go when budgets are cut, but we risk losing some of that progress if we don’t continue to address those barriers to recycling.
With the staff reductions and restructuring in many local authorities much of the knowledge built up over the years through working with WRAP may have been lost. There is a danger that the great waste reduction and recycling resource bank which sits in WRAP will be consigned to the category ‘hidden gems’.
This is absolutely not about forcing people to behave in a certain way. If there was not a pull for this information and no one went to our Recycle Now and Love Food Hate Waste websites for advice and information, we would simply close them down as unwanted – yet each attract more than one million visitors a year.
When investment in communications is dismissed as the frothy fun bit that wastes money, I remember a terrific sketch by the great American comic Bob Newhart in which he imagines Sir Walter Raleigh ringing his London HQ from the New Found Land and - through poor communications - completely failing to explain and sell the wonder of his new discoveries to his cynical hard-nosed boss… Tobacco – ‘you roll it up and set fire to it?’ Coffee – ‘you put beans in a cup and pour boiling water over them?’ At the end of the call his unimpressed boss says (in a New York drawl): ‘Listen Walt, just don’t bother calling me again’.
The insight work WRAP carries out and shares means local authorities and retailers – who are widely trusted by their residents and customers when they give messages on recycling and food waste - can draw on free best practice. What a pity if we put at risk the great progress achieved over the past decade because we disengage with the people and businesses who are asking for help, and they simply hang up.