Government and industry must work together to make recycling a social norm

Written by: Ahmed Detta | Published:

Recycling helps to lower pollution, conserve resources, save energy, reduce deforestation and cut greenhouse gas emissions.

All well-known facts. So why, as we move into 2019, is there widespread agreement that the recycling industry in the UK is in peril?

In recent months we have seen reports of Britain's plastics recycling industry being accused of leaking pollution into oceans and massively exaggerating waste figures. The industry is even facing an investigation by the Environment Agency over widespread fraud.

Add to this the dire recycling rates, particularly in plastics, and we have a highly dysfunctional industry that needs to be reimagined.

Take PET plastic. It has become widely unrecycled in the UK, mainly due to the cost. Since China no longer accepts our waste, PET is largely being burned, and earlier this year we saw a UK council announce that it is planning to tell residents to stop recycling mixed plastic.

So how can we address the problem of PET specifically – a substance that is so ubiquitous, it is difficult to have a total ban on?

The technology to recycle PET exists, but due to cost it is unsustainable for local authorities and recyclers. We therefore need innovative businesses that can take on this challenge and make it economically beneficial and competitive.

At Advanced Sustainable Developments, we are investing in the UK and building a recycling plant in Holyhead designed to recycle PET into flakes and pelletised plastic. We are also completing in-depth feasibility studies for additional facilities across the UK to tackle this massive problem.

The pellets and flakes can be used again to make food-grade packaging materials. This advanced technology taps into the ‘circular economy’ meaning that all the product is recycled and used again.

Plastic recycling is an obvious industry that should focus on achieving this circular economy. But not only do we need to utilise new recycling technologies to recycle PET, we also need to change our culture of recycling.

Germany, for example, has a very successful deposit return scheme – though how successful this is for the environment can be debated. But its pick-up is widespread, with only 1-3% of non-reusable bottles not returned in Germany, and recycling rates for cans around 99%.

This is in part down to consumers getting an incentive to recycle in the form of cashback or vouchers, but it can also be attributed to Germany’s culture of recycling. Germany recycles more waste than any other country and it is down to making recycling a social norm that means most citizens adhere to recycling laws.

Composting food waste and fastidiously separating glass and plastics for recycling is engrained in everyday life for most Germans.

Here in the UK the ‘Blue Planet effect’ may make us shun single-use plastic such as straws and coffee cups, but we need to go further and habitually recycle. When out and about, recycling needs to be a social norm – looking to recycle all waste and not just finding the nearest rubbish bin.

But how can we do this?

It’s difficult to persuade consumers to recycle when there are daily reminders of how little of our waste is recycled. I know people who refuse to recycle because they think that the majority of the material will not be recycled by their local authority and end up being burned. This distrust leads to rebellious behaviour – we know we should be recycling, but we do not.

Triggering society’s conscience is one way, and I believe the most important. We need to make recycling a natural habit. Having worked in sustainability with a focus on recycling for 10 years, my mission is to make plastics recycling habitual in our everyday behaviour. Social norms are subconscious ‘rules’ that shape our behaviour.

We can ignore them and ‘break’ the rules, but generally we don’t. Being a part of society means following these social norms – so if we can make recycling a social norm then we have a hope of increasing rates, which in turn would put pressure on Government and the industry to make the process more effective and efficient.

Government (at the top and bottom) and players in the recycling industry need to work with key organisations to understand consumer behaviour, lifestyle and choices. By doing so they are then able to devise accurate awareness messages that would contribute directly to consumer behaviour change.

These messages are designed to give you a transparent insight into the recycling process, allowing knowledge to build, leading to the ‘ah ha, so that’s how they do it’ brain process to kick in, thus instilling change.

Change is best administered during a consumer’s buying behaviour journey, so if we can tap into this then perhaps 2019 could be the year when the recycling industry can upgrade, reimagine and recycling becomes habitual for us all.

Ahmed Detta is founder and CEO of Advanced Sustainable Developments

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