Recycling in one form or another has been occurring since ancient times; there is mounting evidence from archaeological studies that prehistoric humans deliberately conserved and recycled everyday items. Research at ancient waste sites also shows that in times of scarcity, recycling was more common: no need for a consumer awareness raising campaign there, then. So, why have we lost this desire to recycle and now need to be persuaded to recycle through expensive awareness raising campaigns?
From the mid-19th century, book publishers appreciated the need to get hold of recycled fibre and use it to produce new books. At a time before consumer engagement was really considered, the way they got round this problem was to buy books at auction for the sole purpose of recycling the fibre. This was the beginning of the period of recycling out of economic necessity, where mass industrialisation caused a shortage of raw material. Recycled material was easier to obtain than virgin material. Informal rag and bone networks developed to collect material from consumers at a very basic consumer awareness level by sounding a bugle; this practice was adopted nationally. Consumers were persuaded to participate by offering them incentives at a significantly lower value than their recyclate.
As we went into the war years, iron and textiles were seen as having strategic importance to the war effort, and so it became the nation’s patriotic duty to recycle and conserve these resources. Again, the consumer awareness message was about the clear benefits of recycling, and everybody was in it together; a familiar mantra, even today.
As we moved into the 70s, the emergence of the first glass banks in the UK coincided with the energy crisis. Using recycled material as feedstock saved energy; therefore, recycling once more became a necessity. However, industry was now looking for us, the consumer, to do our bit and take bottles back to collection banks for recycling. Consumer awareness projects now began to switch their message away from recycling as a benefit to us to why we should recycle for the benefit of some other entity, i.e., the producer. Recycling rates were low and it required legislation to mandate a change in behaviour.
If we consider the recycling messages of recent years, they have been about pushing us to recycle through necessity, either to save the planet, reduce carbon, or increase resource efficiency via the circular economy. Again we are all in this together. However, mostly these are nebulous ideas: we are trying to engage with the ‘hard to reach’ section of public who are still not recycling after years of telling them how important it is and putting in infrastructure that makes it easy for them. A recent report from EU “Voices for Innovation” highlights this: there is still a poor level of consumer awareness, with many people unaware that they can recycle their WEEE and batteries. Old myths also abound: “what’s the point of separating out recycling it all goes to landfill.” Valpak’s Packflow reports also demonstrate that to achieve higher recycling targets consumer engagement is required, and not more collection infrastructure.
So is it now the time to realise that consumer engagement has gone as far as it can and that spending more money will only provide ever decreasing returns? Should this money now be better invested in developing sorting technology that will tackle the separation of recyclate from residual waste or in developing new legislation that mandates the consumer to do more?
Which would be more palatable to UK or devolved government: a technology solution or a stick?