Dr Kathryn Wheeler researches how consumers respond to pressures on them to act sustainably. In an interview with Birmingham Eastside she sheds light on the state of recycling in the UK compared with other countries; explains why it is not so easy to improve household recycling rates; and proposes some ideas to start moving up the ‘waste hierarchy’.
Let’s start with the basics. How important is recycling today?
“At the time of climate crisis, sustainability is key on most agendas across the world. If you think about the waste hierarchy, from disposal at the bottom to prevention at the top, recycling is somewhere in the middle: it’s not the best thing you can do, but it’s the thing that most governments have put their attention to.
“There are a number of benefits from recycling. First of all, resource scarcity: it does make sense to recycle rather than to create something new.
“Also, in terms of jobs, recycling is a way of stimulating the green economy. If you just put everything into the ground, that’s not a huge number of labourers involved, but the separation of the waste requires some operatives to be involved in the process. That generates material and there’s a huge industry around this.”
In the last 15 years there has been a general increase in recycling across Europe. How was this achieved?
“Part of why we recycle more is to divert it from landfill. The UK translated the EU landfill directive into a policy initiative around landfill tax. I would say, in all honesty, the reason why recycling rates are where they are right now, whether or not we think they’re high, is because it cost so much to put waste into landfill — the escalating landfill tax is huge.
“That has motivated a lot of investment in alternatives to landfill and recycling was one of those alternatives. Equally, so was incineration and other forms of investment in big infrastructure.”
There are reports suggesting a correlation between poverty and low recycling rates. Is this so?
“It’s not something I’ve specifically looked about but I can understand why that might be the case. If your concern is survival and just getting through the day and you’re working long hours, then recycling might be low down on your agenda.
“It also relies on civic responsibility, and if you feel ignored or forgotten as a member of a marginalised community… But I don’t want to generalise.
“It takes time to recycle your waste. There’s a burden on the household to wash, to store, and then take this out to the kerb. We researched about the kind of work that is involved in household recycling, and who’s doing that work. There’s a lot of hidden labour here. And who’s doing that work? Often, it’s the woman in the household. If they’re working long hours, recycling is just one extra thing to add to the list. There’s a lot of expectation upon them to perform that labour and they do that for free, as part of their civic responsibility.
“This comes back to the awareness around environmental messaging. Who’s receiving that? We know that the people who are more likely to be receptive to environmental messages, the sustainable consumers, are from middle class backgrounds, people that have more time to do these things.
“Recycling doesn’t cost money, per se. But it does cost time.”
Is recycling more concentrated in certain social groups?
“There are little pockets and communities. If everyone in your street is doing it and maybe you don’t know what material was supposed to go out this week, you can just look outside your door and then you might remember to do it.
“Recycling rates tend to be higher in suburban settings, rather than in urban settings, where you often will have joint facilities for recycling and not so much space as well — recycling takes up a lot of space in your home.
“One of the things that might prevent you from putting things to one side is essentially that we are all acting as warehouses for this material. And if you haven’t got a lot of space in your place that’s another barrier.
“Equally, it’s more difficult to recycle if you don’t have a recycling facility in your community. And it’s also about the feedback loops as well. If someone is checking – this still exists in some parts in England – and you put out the wrong material in the wrong box, you might get a note through the door saying ‘Oh, you’ve done it wrong’. But in a flat it is more challenging to locate who actually the wrongdoer is.”
Are there cultural or sociological factors that impact on recycling rates?
“Certainly. If you’ve got high levels of immigrants that come from different systems, maybe the recycling messaging hasn’t been translated into their language. And they’re trying to get used to all sorts of other things as well at the same time.
“There’s research done that found it’s not that these populations don’t want to recycle but they just don’t understand the system that they’ve entered into.
“But rates themselves are something of a construction. Those places that say they have a big recycling rate, do they include green waste in that? Some experts say that it shouldn’t be counted towards your recycling figures as it makes rural suburban places seem to do much better.
“And perhaps green waste is not the sort of waste that we’re really as interested in, in terms of resource scarcity, packaging and all that.”
You have researched the Swedish waste management and recycling system, which is often praised. How does it differ from the UK system?
“In the UK there is a privatisation of waste management, with big long partnerships in place between waste management companies and councils.
“One of the reasons why these contracts are so long is because of the infrastructural investment that is required. The councils say: ‘We will deliver this amount of waste to you and you will deal with that’.
“Sweden may not have much higher recycling rates than we do, but they have a national system of recycling. That means, for example, that they can incorporate banks for bottle deposit schemes so that you can take those back to the shop.
“They also have a universal labelling on packaging, whereas obviously we don’t have and every council has its own kind of system. There’s a lot of variation. And what you find is that people here are really confused — they don’t know what to do.”
The UK system is atomised…
“Some councils collect some things, some councils collect things all commingled… It’s more commingled than not and that’s not the most effective way of dealing with the waste if your goal is a viable economic materials economy.
“But you can’t create a national system because you’ve got all of these waste management companies that are in these different length contracts at different points. They’ve set up that contract in such a way that they will only collect certain materials, or they will collect them in particular arrangements. It’s difficult to switch that.
“In Sweden they also have a producer responsibility instituted in the whole country. In the UK, it’s a bit of a mystery how the producer responsibility works because the money doesn’t go back to the council.
“And again, the consumer, at the end, who is being asked to do this recycling, is very confused. Because we don’t have a universal messaging.”
There is a discussion about whether or not to use incinerators, which in recent years have been used to replace landfill
“It is certainly a quite controversial issue. In Sweden, they incinerate a lot of their waste. Whatever doesn’t get recycled is going for incineration. But the difference is that they have incinerators plugged into district heating, so it’s more efficient. And incineration is kind of championed there, whereas in the UK we have a very strong lobby against incineration.
“That’s partly because they aren’t nice plants to be around, and often they are located in in more deprived areas, in communities that perhaps have less resources to challenge that.
“Different countries have different views on the efficiency of incinerators, but I think, ultimately, we need to be moving more up the waste hierarchy.
“We need to be in a position where we’re sorting most of our waste for recycling, or not even creating the waste in the first place.
“That requires us to shop quite differently, in order for trucks not to travel so far so we can have less packaging, and so on. It’s a huge kind of systemic shift that would be required.”
How can we start to move further up in the waste hierarchy?
“It requires coordination across lots of different sectors. There are many voluntary initiatives, but as often happens in England, we tend to go for the voluntary commitments rather than the things that actually have teeth to make a difference.
“For example, the producers who are creating these materials are not involved in the collection, they’re removed from that system, but they have an important role in reducing the amount of packaging that we buy.
“In terms of recycling, we’ve been reasonably successful compared to other types of sustainability initiatives. But we should embrace more the principles of circularity and think how they can be instituted in the system. For example, at the point of production, by thinking about how something is going to be disposed.
“We need more networks for sharing, so we don’t always have to buy new, like reuse shops located next to the household recycling centres.
“That comes back to the obsolescence that is programmed into certain goods that aren’t really built to last — that disposable attitude. Ultimately, we need to buy a lot less, and we need to not be so focused on growth.
“But there’s always a tension when you’re talking about moving towards a future model of sustainability. Because even the UN Sustainable Development Goals stand at the same time for responsible production and economic growth. And you can’t have both, I don’t really see how you can. So, it’s incredibly challenging.”