Recycling incentives: do they offer a return on investment?

Secro’s recently published report on the impact of recycling incentive schemes is a welcome piece of work that makes a useful contribution to the ongoing debate around how local authorities can encourage behaviour change at a time of public sector austerity and shrinking budgets.

It highlights the significant investment made into kerbside collection schemes and the need to maximise their performance.

What’s interesting is the conclusion that incentives, regardless of whether they are carrot or stick, appear to have relatively modest outcomes and don’t always provide clear return on investment.

It supports the view expressed in Defra’s Evaluation of the Waste Reward and Recognition Scheme report last month; that while rewards and recognition have the potential to improve people’s existing behaviour they are less likely to act as a catalyst for new behaviours.

My view for some time has been that you can’t compel households to act differently through incentive alone. There are plenty of people that still file their tax return late and incur a fine, even though they get plenty of warning and are aware of the penalties. People lead busy lives and recycling behaviour is more of a subconscious than conscious behaviour.

Apart from giving householders the physical means to recycle more effectively, the opportunity is to educate and communicate the benefits of recycling, not just to them personally but to wider society and the environment.

MetalMatters helps local authorities promote their kerbside metal recycling through a tried and tested communications programme. The success of our local authority partnerships are supported by Secro’s resident survey, which indicated that people are more likely to be encouraged to recycle by marketing communications than incentives [reference: 9% and 5% respectively].

For example, Aberdeenshire Council recorded a sustained increase in metal packaging recycling after launching the MetalMatters programme, which was delivered in partnership

with Zero Waste Scotland. It generated a return on investment within just 10 months and increased metal tonnages collected at the kerbside by 12%.

Similarly, one year on from launching a programme with Sefton Borough Council, 63% of the estimated total metal packaging used by households in the area is now collected for recycling — double the amount compared to before the campaign was introduced.

A big factor in the success of the MetalMatters programmes has been our unwavering focus on simplicity — a lesson that may benefit the local authorities looking to improve their recycling figures. We knew from the outset that to encourage householders to recycle more metal packaging we needed compelling and very simple communication to cut through with our messages. We are fortunate that the advantages and convenience of metal packaging recycling is really simple. It’s valuable, endlessly recyclable and can be transformed into something new within as little as six weeks.

As the Defra report concluded, reward schemes should not be seen as a quick fix. If behaviour change is to be achieved, communication is the key.