In the ideal world, we all would have the resources to commission research studies that tell us what’s keeping our recycling rates down. In the real world, for most of us that’s not going to happen. But we can learn a lot from others who have put in the time and effort to find out what’s going on in their communities.

In 2014, environmental charity Keep Britain Tidy and and waste management company SITA UK teamed up to conduct a study to get to the bottom of what was causing dwindling recycling rates in highly-urbanized communities in the UK. They polled a wide range of participants about recycling knowledge and habits, and then conducted a mini-class to see how learning about recycling affected attitudes towards recycling. Here’s what they discovered.

Most people know when to put out their trash and curbside recycling. That’s a decent start. But when it comes to knowing what their local haulers actually accept, more than 30 percent of people are unsure. About the same number of people don’t feel confident about the reasons to recycle or benefits of recycling. That’s a large slice of folks who are readily dissuaded from recycling, or likely sources of high contamination rates, all due to lack of basic information.

Further, where recycling knowledge really breaks down is when it comes to understanding what happens to recyclables after they’re tossed in the bin, and what products can be made from the items you recycle. About 80 percent of people claim cluelessness in these areas.

The good news? After the mini-class, study participants said greater awareness of the recycling process increased their commitment to recycling and ability to do it appropriately. A majority of people said that if they were informed of various concrete benefits to recycling, whether local or global, they would be more likely to recycle. And many claimed that they simply needed basic education about what items they can recycle and hauler service options.

So what does this mean for your recycling outreach?
Here are some key points from the study’s recommended Action Plan:

Continue to invest in communication

“Communication should continue to be at the heart of increasing recycling, utilizing the expertise and research developed over time. Not only do we need to continue to invest in communication, but we also need to be better at getting messages across to the public, exploring new techniques via social media alongside more traditional and targeted local campaigns.”

Emphasize the value of recycling

“Stakeholders … need to come together to communicate a more consistent message on recycling and to rebuild the connection between the public, natural resources and our waste … At a local and global level, people need to understand both the personal and societal benefits.”

Don’t forget the big picture

“Government should support the repositioning of the waste and resource sector, not just as another service, but one that is good for the environment. We have to demonstrate the additional strengths of recycling and the circular economy for future investment, job creation, skill development, and for the positive contribution they make to a sustainable economy.”

A tall order? Yes. Doable? Also, we believe, yes. At Recyclist, we obsess over how to do all of the above and do it really well, on behalf of our customers. However, even if you are doing all your outreach yourself, if nothing else this study can serve as a source of encouragement and motivation that it’s most certainly worth your time and effort. And as a reminder that while you’re letting people know the do’s and don’ts of what goes where, it’s equally important to weave in broader messaging around values and benefits. Of all the things that can stand in the way between where your recycling program is and where you want it to be, don’t let lack of knowledge be one of them. Knowledge is empowerment, and empowerment is the beginning of change.

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