16.03.2017

Reinvigorating Recycling - Stephen Bates, Director, Envirocomms

Cambridge Cleantech is organising an event on reinvigorating recycling on 23rd May.
Stephen Bates, Director of Envirocomms shares his views on why ecouraging behaviral change to cencourage recycling is more important than ever.


 
Communications: Save now; pay later…see UK recycling rates for further information.
 

Behavioural Change expert Stephen Bates looks at the diminishing presence of strategic behavioural change within public communications and why reintroducing could be the answer to addressing the issues of contamination, stagnant and falling recycling levels.
 
Campaigns driven by behavioural change strategies are defined by content that embraces motivation, not just information. Example: Campaign developed by EnviroComms for the North London Waste Authority in 2013 (Winner of the Best Communications Campaign in the CIWM awards 2014).
 


I rather think that the waste and recycling sector has lost its previously well-grasped understanding of behavioural change. It seems to me that today, it’s a phrase that’s used as an alternative to ‘communications’ (but intending to mean the same thing) and that embracing its strategic nature and purpose has been consigned to the past. OK, I may be generalising a bit but with widespread reports of stagnant and falling recycling rates and increased levels of contamination balanced with the fact that most councils now have well established services, it’s difficult to lay the cause anywhere else.
 
Ten years ago I presented the concept of the ‘Behavioural Change Curve at the Waste 2006 conference. This was not some theoretical model but something rooted in real-world, global experience of managing behavioural shifts amongst people in both a waste management context but also looking at similar endeavours in lifestyle and healthcare.  The crux of the Behavioural Change Curve is that Behaviour Change is not a single step process but a gradual process across three phases: behaviour change, behaviour development and behaviour maintenance.
 
Stimulating Behaviour Change is the easiest of these three phases; provide the services, containers and the motivation and people will go from recycling nothing to recycling something.  When we move into the development phase, things start to get a bit tricky. All the quick wins have been won with services in place so the emphasis is upon motivating them to do more using the services they have.  Only once you’re up to the 60% - 70% recycling levels do we get into the behavioural maintenance phase.
 
When I presented this concept, I stressed the point that the one common denominator across all three phases of change was the need for public communications. If at any point on the curve, communications lessens or is cut altogether it will result in the population and their participation levels falling back downwards along the curve requiring more investment in renewed communications than would have otherwise been the case.
 
With the national recycling rate hovering in the mid 40% but 70% of MSW recyclable, we are still firmly within the behavioural development phase and short of heavy enforcement; communications is arguably the only answer to re-boost recycling.
 
It’s at this point I guess, we can wheel in that big elephant into the middle of the room; ‘budgets’.
 
Communications costs money. Good communications a bit more money and effective communications a bit more, still. When savings have to be made in any sector, private or public, communications and marketing are the first to suffer as the financial benefits of not spending are instantly felt, pleasing the accountants but the longer-term consequences can be catastrophic. Save now – pay later…see UK recycling rates for further information.
 
Part of the problem is that communications is all too often seen as a cost when it is far more accurate to consider it as an investment.
 
In 2014, Warwickshire County Council invested £80,000 in communications to address poor recycling performance across 40,000 homes. A key outcome of this was a 25% reduction in food waste in the residual bins, saving the council £900,000 pa in avoided disposal costs. At the time of writing, Kingston upon Hull City Council are coming to the end of a £100,000 public communications project that is showing signs of positively impacting on the £600,000 that contaminated recycling is costing the council each year.
 
But it’s not just about spending the money; it’s how you spend it.
 
Motivational branding is not limited to printed materials and works best when integrated across all channels of engagement. Example: Kingston upon Hull City Council – engagement project to address high levels of contamination.
 

Many councils do recognise the need for communication and have continued to spend in this area, just not as much and to achieve savings, we are seeing increasing examples of internally produced literature, ad campaigns and the like. As a means to deliver information, such examples fit the bill but information alone is not enough to stimulate behaviour change. Most examples lack the motivation that only comes from strategically driven Behaviour Change expertise which is manifested in many things including the tone of voice used, imagery, colours as well as more precise targeting and tailoring of the engagement process.
 
The additional cost to develop motivational communications is marginal. It costs the same amount of money to print and distribute bland, information literature than it does something that is well designed and motivational. It costs the same amount of money to send a team of doorstep advisors into the field who have not had the required level of subject training and are themselves motivated as those who have and are. Approaching communications on the basis of least cost is always a false economy. The cost savings are marginal but the impact on disposal costs will be minimal so the net result is total budgets being put under even greater strain.
 
I rather suspect that there are many within the MSW sector whose past exposure to ‘proper’ Behaviour Change communications was that golden period of 2002 – 2009 when big budgets were available to support big service changes that resulted in recycling leaping from nothing to 30% and more. A quick look through the EnviroComms ‘job book’ of that period shows an average comms’ budget then of between £5 and £6 per household; budgets that today are simply unattainable. Believing that similar levels of spend are required today and knowing that the ability to do so does not exist but recognising that some form of public engagement is needed, we are seeing examples of councils doing and spending as little as possible resulting in these false economies.
 
The reality is, that you do not have to spend these levels to achieve brilliant results. Today, we can use waste data and demographic insight to precisely target where communications should be focused and what motivational tools are needed to keep people heading upwards on that behavioural change curve.
 
A look back at the EnviroComms ‘job book’ over the past five years shows an average comms budget of between just £1 and £2 per household yet this period has yielded some of the most successful campaigns in terms of council savings including the Warwickshire and Hull examples.
 
One of the most (understandably) common mistakes made by those who work in the waste and recycling industry is to assume that the public share a detailed understanding of all things waste and recycling but the harsh fact is; they don’t. They just want their bins emptied. Whilst many recycle willingly and efficiently, many still do so begrudgingly and thus less efficiently. Motivating the latter to join the ranks of the former is something that can only be achieved through Behavioural Change based communications.
 
In isolation, things like Facebook pages, branded giveaways, stickers and the like will have limited impact on what is sent to landfill. With properly applied strategic Behavioural Change, they can be exceptionally powerful and effective tools that contribute with others to deliver those all-important diversion targets.
 
 
About Stephen Bates: 
Stephen Bates is a global leader in Behavioural Change Communications for the MSW and Sanitation sectors. He is the Director of Communications at EnviroComms, a leading waste communications company having worked for over 130 local authorities since 2003 delivering some of the most effective campaigns supporting the UK’s commitment to increased recycling, waste reduction and reuse.
 
The paper referred to in this article is called ‘The Strategy of Behaviour Change’ and can be downloaded for free at: http://www.envirocomms.com/resources/thought-leadership/