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Targeted engagement to boost recycling, re-use and waste reduction

Source: Public Sector Executive Aug/Sept 2014

Amongst the speakers at this year’s RWM in partnership with CIWM event is Joanna Dixon, community recycling officer at Croydon Council, who has a tough message to get across on England’s slowing progress towards hitting a 70% recycling rate.

Recycling has shifted up the agenda in recent years, and is much more embedded culturally as the ‘done thing’ – and the statistics bear this out. But in England, recycling rates still stand at 43%, having increased only 0.1% in the year to June 2013 – leaving the country a long way off the European target of 70% by 2030. New EU proposals also involve a ban on sending recyclable waste to landfill by 2025.

The figures are better in Wales (54%) and Scotland, which has historically lagged the rest of the UK, is up to 40%.

Joanna Dixon, Croydon’s community recycling officer, is speaking on a panel at RWM in partnership with CIWM (more on page 71) about targeted engagement and education to increase recycling.

‘Support is somewhat lacking’

She says these measures are vital if local authorities have any hope of hitting the new target. She told PSE: “We need increased support from central government to achieve this. At the moment, that’s somewhat lacking. The devolved administrations, Wales and Scotland, are far more ambitious in the way they’re approaching their recycling rates.

“There was also significant funding available through those administrations that isn’t available through Defra at the moment. Wales is doing fantastically well, they’re going full steam ahead. Scotland, coming from a historically lagging position, has been making up quite substantial ground. However, when you compare that to the situation in England, we’re starting to lag somewhat.

“The recycling figures show that the recycling rate is levelling off. At the moment, there doesn’t seem to be a clear direction from central government in terms of how they’re going to address that levelling off.”

In fact, she said, the pressure on council finances mean new investment is going to be hard to find.

Instead, it’s going to be about targeted engagement, and encouraging waste reduction and re-use as well as just recycling – clearly, the ‘recycling rate’ metric is to blunt an instrument to capture the whole picture, as it does not on its own incentivise reductions in the total amount of waste, just increases in the amount of it sent for recycling.

Dixon told us: “The European target is not the most effective metric for measuring progress across the waste hierarchy. It’s the most widely-used measurement we have at the moment, but things like carbon impact should be considered as well, as should overall waste creation – that’s a very significant metric that seems to be overlooked.

“There needs to be investment in systems and collections infrastructure. At the moment, we’re finding a lack of ambition from Defra. We are seeing stagnating rates, and council budgets at the moment are being cut and we’re constantly looking for efficiencies.”

Targeted engagement in Croydon

A project to specifically target and engage households that never recycled has had important results, helping push Croydon’s recycling rate to 44.3%, shooting it up the league table of London boroughs from 29th place seven years ago to joint fifth. This was recognised at the 2013 National Recycling Awards, where Croydon was named ‘Local Authority Team of the Year’.

After introducing weekly food waste collections and plastics collections from October 2011, and going fortnightly on landfill waste collections, the council wanted to maximise its return on that investment by increasing recycling participation.

The communications strategy started broadly: speaking to 20,000 residents at roadshows, doing leaflet door-drops, outdoor advertising and press articles, plus neighbourhood meetings. But as Dixon explained: “The best way to achieve increases is by tightly targeting areas of low performance.”

Some properties never presented any recycling for collection, she said. “These are quite often the properties that will have overflowing landfill bins, and bags of waste by the sides of the bins – which obviously has a detrimental visual impact, as well as causing increased problems with foxes, rats and other pests.”

A multi-lingual engagement team of six officers and a manager, experienced in face-to-face behaviour change projects, set to work. There are more than 70 languages spoken in Croydon, and there were particular problems in areas where people had English as a second language.

“Often, communicating the system through a leaflet wasn’t particularly effective in reaching that audience,” Dixon said.

She said: “We started off by using a data-driven approach to identify those individual properties. Then we corroborated the data, knocked on doors, to find out why they weren’t using the collection system and what the problems were: did they not have equipment? Were they unaware of the changes?”

Repeat visits

The initial part of the project identified 1,095 properties that presented no recycling on at least four out of every five occasions. Once commercial and empty properties were stripped out, this left 849, which were visited multiple times at evenings and weekends.

There were 698 properties ‘engaged with’ in this way, followed by two weeks of monitoring and evaluation. The team delivered 73 food waste kits and 408 recycling boxes.

But, the team found, people have different reasons for not using kerbside recycling services: some were home composting, some using other facilities. Of those who continued to present no recycling after the project, only 3% admitted it was because they “couldn’t be bothered”.

Dixon said: “From a baseline of 0% service participation, we got an overall participation rate of over 69%. That was with the properties least likely to recycle out of approximately 125,000.”

Compulsory recycling

But the other side of the coin was enforcement. The council used powers under the Environmental Protection Act 1990 to enforce compulsory recycling, targeting roads rather than properties.

People were given plenty of time to comply: a leaflet drop was followed by three weeks’ monitoring, followed by door-knocking and engagement with properties not presenting recycling, then another three weeks monitoring. After that came a ‘yellow letter’, three weeks’ more monitoring, a ‘red letter’, three final weeks of monitoring, and only then were non-compliers’ details passed to enforcement officers to issue fixed penalty notices.

Of the 4,626 properties in the scope of phase 1 of the compulsory recycling project, only five (0.1%) were still not recycling at its end.Properties already ‘highly engaged’ with recycling services were targeted instead for waste reduction/re-use projects.

Dixon said: “We’ve come a long way. A lot of that is down to the investment in the collection system, but it is also down to maximising resident participation, so we’re getting the best return. It’s about getting the right balance between education and enforcement. Going in with a hard line isn’t the most effective way forward, it has to be a combination.

“We were sure to have an engagement-led approach, speaking to residents face-to-face, and ensuring they had everything they needed – sufficient recycling boxes, calendars, and that they were aware what was collected and when. We covered the real basics: why we need people to participate and use the services available to them, and the impact of that. We achieved some fantastic participation rates in roads that were historically poor-performing.

“The impact is really visual. Roads where waste would be spilling out of wheelie bins are now places where every single property is presenting recycling boxes and where you don’t have bags of waste by the sides of the bins, and the lids are closed.”

She encouraged people to come along to the RWM in partnership with CIWM event, saying: “It’s a great place to go and meet suppliers and network with peers, and get ideas and see what other people are doing, and what innovation there is out there to bring back to implement locally.”

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