“Man will become better when you show him what he is like.”
Anton Chekov 1860-1904
As the waste sector moves to become a zero-waste sector, it depends, utterly and entirely on the actions of people. The ability to recycle materials into new products depends on people in homes and offices. People choosing to separate recycling from non-recyclable waste and putting food waste into those little caddies will determine if we can make zero waste a reality. It is starkly obvious but also often forgotten, the heart of the sector depends on people and the actions they take.
If people do not separate, do not wash out containers or put non-recyclables into the recycling, the whole system suffers. More contamination of ‘non-target materials’ reduces the quality and value of recyclates, pushing up the cost of the process. More recyclable material is rejected, and recycling rates fall. Otherwise recyclable material falls out of the loop and becomes waste – no longer part of the move to a zero-waste circular economy.
There is a tendency to say this poor recycling is householder’s fault. People are lazy and don’t care. The Chekov quotation at the top of this article is cited in Human Kind, a newly published book by Rutger Bregman. His thesis is that people, left to their own devices, are better than we give them credit for. In a series of powerful critiques of long held assumptions and research, he suggests that people are naturally good. His approach challenges the easy route to say that the reason we have a polluted planet is because people are lazy and don’t care.
But we do have a real problem. Recycling is contaminated. Good recyclable material does get discarded. So, if the core reason is not people’s laziness, what is the cause? Perhaps it is confusion. In the challenge of modern life, balancing work, social and family life along with additional pressures of the pandemic, people struggle to fit everything in. Faced with a meal to prepare after a long day of work and lockdown home education is it a surprise if people struggle to determine if their pizza box with a plastic window is really recyclable or not?
When you look at the packaging itself and how it is made – one thing is really striking – ease of use. Easy to open and reseal closures, tear along the dotted line: consumer brands are rightly focussed on making it easy for people to get at their products. Have you forgotten how fiddly it was to open the packet of digestives before the cunning little red strip (or perhaps I’m showing my age?).
As consumer awareness and concern over the environment increases, and the desire to build back better grows, a real shift is needed. Making disposing of packaging as easy as those clever closures. There is a pressing need to focus on the consumer and, critically, it requires a whole supply chain. The producers need to make packaging that is genuinely recyclable in modern infrastructure that does not just separate but reprocesses to create new material – what we call end-of-waste. The collections system needs to be standardised so that people can put that packaging in the right bin and know it will be reprocessed, and industry needs to build those kind of separation and reprocessing facilities in the UK so that recycling is not just good for the planet, it’s good for the economy and jobs too.
It comes down to confidence. Public confidence in recycling to ensure we have a quality feedstock to recycle and reprocess and manufacturer confidence in recycled materials so they always favour these over virgin material.
The golden thread running through all of this is policy. Policy determines the economics of the entire waste and recycling sector. The fall in landfill and growth in recycling has been driven by landfill tax and polluter pays based policy called producer responsibility. Encouragingly, the Government is stepping up Defra’s Resources and Waste Strategy, covers much of this. The detailed work is now underway and will determine how effective it is. A key part, consistent collections, is about ensuring there is a group of recyclable materials that all local authorities will collect. Wherever you are, whether at home, in the office or away on holiday, you will know what can and cannot be recycled. Critically this policy should be developed and tested with real people. Is a recyclable/not recyclable packaging lable sufficient. Would material symbols and colour coding work better? These questions should be tested in people’s daily lives with all the challenges and time pressures that brings.
After all, if most people want to do the right thing most of the time, then surely most of the battle is won. The move to a zero-waste economy is surely about making it easy for people to do the right thing. The consumer-focused approach which is so embedded in the DNA of the consumer brands needs to be applied to policy making. If people’s every day actions are truly the driver of the effectiveness of recycling, then making the right choice the easy choice must be at the centre of policy reform. Because, given half a chance, that is exactly what people want to do.
Tim Rotheray is director of innovation and regulations at Viridor