Binning it: is it time to move on from behaviour change in waste policy?

  • Election 24

Dr Helen Holmes, Senior Lecturer in Sociology, University of Manchester 

With a new suite of recycling and disposal policies expected to come into force in the next five years, Dr Helen Holmes asks whether it is time to move on from behaviour change in waste policy.

Have you ever been confused about recycling? What goes in what bin? Perhaps you’ve received an enforcement notice for ‘fly-tipping’ an extra bag by the side of your bin? All too often households and consumers are held responsible for the failures of waste disposal, particularly recycling but also other ‘R’ pathways such as re-use, refill and repair. Yet are consumers really the ‘villains’ in the UK’s woefully low and stagnant 44% recycling rate?

Over the next 2-5 years a suite of policies is due to come into force to drive up UK recycling rates and to enable a transition to a circular materials economy. Yet these policies will drastically alter the design, manufacture, retailing, consumption, disposal and waste management of many goods and are likely to have significant impacts on already confused consumers and households.

Whilst it is recognised that a whole system approach (technological, economic, environmental, and social) is required to fully achieve a circular materials economy, the social aspect is often downplayed in waste and recycling related policy. At best, social considerations are an afterthought, often advocating for a focus on the need for specific behavioural change. At worst, the social factors of waste and related policy are not considered at all. Waste policy remains unaware of the diversity of social practices, and lacks the nuance to deal with what people actually do with products and materials at the point of disposal and the effect this can have on their future economic value and environmental impact.

For the past 10 years I have studied the ‘invisible’ part of disposal – drawing on micro level, qualitative analysis to explore how the consumption, treatment and disposal of goods and materials can have implications and unintended consequences up and down the supply chain (Holmes, 2023). A core finding of this work has been recognition of mundane forms of circularity taking place in people’s homes, communities and workplaces – including the informal reusing, gifting and repairing of everyday things such as clothing, food or furniture (Holmes, 2018). However, importantly it has also flagged significant issues with waste policies’ persistent focus on behaviour change and the notion of there being a ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ disposal decision. As I, and others, have argued, this monochrome approach comes at the expense of recognising and addressing the impacts of wider systems, circumstances and contexts which inform those decisions and activities.

For example, behavioural change approaches to fly-tipping centre communication, intervention and enforcement as the means to drive the ‘right’ waste behaviour (Keep Britain Tidy, 2023). However, my recent research has illuminated the broader influence of the built environment and social factors on fly-tipping. This includes: high density, often illegally sub-let housing making waste management difficult; the cost of living crisis limiting available time to prioritise waste; language barriers affecting understanding of waste guidance; and a lack of transport to deal with excess waste (Holmes & Perczel, under review). Not to mention limited bin sizes introduced by behavioural change policy approaches to ‘nudge’ recycling behaviours, but which instead tend to result in people hiding waste or ‘fly-tipping’ ‘side-waste’ (local authority term for ‘extra bags’) next to their bins. All of these factors must be considered when creating policies to address and prevent fly-tipping; as one size does not fit all.

Likewise, as the ‘One Bin to Rule Them All’ project found, households will often find ways to circumvent local authority recycling rules. Whilst this might seem to be ‘deviant’ from a behavioural change perspective, our in depth, interdisciplinary study with 30 households from across three socio-demographically different areas found that participants would do their best to ensure that waste items were on the most sustainable end-of-life pathway. From driving miles into neighbouring local authorities where particular types of items are accepted for recycling, to storing up hard to recycle types of packaging for in-store collections, to using social media to negotiate spare bin capacity with neighbours, our research has shown that the majority of households really do care about disposal. Behavioural change approaches miss this nuance.

Yet such nuance is much needed for the suite of incoming new waste policies. Policies which will require significant changes to consumer and household behaviour, not to mention manufacturing, retail, local authorities and the waste management sector. Policies such as the long-awaited Deposit Return Scheme (DRS) which will see consumers return bottles and aluminium cans (also glass in Scotland) to supermarkets for a small cash back amount, or consistent kerbside collection which will standardise waste collections across the UK – meaning the same things are collected for recycling no matter which local authority you are in. For these policies to be successful, and importantly for them to work together rather than against each other, requires understanding of the social, economic and cultural contexts in which they are to be adopted. Otherwise we risk adding to the ‘patchwork of disconnected solutions’ we currently have (Ellen MacArthur Foundation, 2022) and moving further away from the goal of a circular materials economy.

In our One Bin project we have produced a policy report which calls for three core policy recommendations (Holmes, et al. 2023). These are: (1) standardisation across the plastics supply chain focusing on infrastructure, materials and messaging; (2) the introduction of a hierarchy of materials to determine the best end of life fate for different forms of plastic packaging (Kortsen et al, 2023); and, most significantly, (3) engagement with consumer practice to fully understand what happens with household waste at the micro level and the implications of this both upstream and downstream. The latter really resonates here – for such future policies to have any chance of being successful, social practice must be considered. What do people do with items/materials at the point of disposal and how is that determined by the wider systems and context in which such disposal takes place?

I fully appreciate that the in-depth qualitative understanding required to build such nuance is difficult, particularly as many policymakers have quantitative skillsets that miss the unintended consequences of social practices. As my research has illuminated, many policymakers do not have the mechanisms to integrate this expertise, despite being aware of the need for it. Translating this ‘invisible’ part of the supply chain using social science approaches and ensuring its incorporation into future policy is essential to achieve a circular materials economy.

About the author

Dr Helen Holmes is a Senior Lecturer in Sociology at the University of Manchester.  Her work explores consumption, materiality and diverse forms of economy, particularly circular economy.  She is Co-Investigator (Co-I) on the interdisciplinary project ‘One Bin to Rule Them’ funded by a UKRI Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund Grant on Smart Sustainable Plastic Packaging (NE/V01045X/1), along with team members Prof Mike Shaver (Principal Investigator), Dr Maria Sharmina (Co-I), Dr Torik Holmes, Dr Kris Kortsen and Dr Adeyemi Adelekan.  She is also Principal Investigator on ‘The Waste Tip’ a University of Manchester Interdisciplinary Research (UMRI) funded project exploring fly-tipping with Dr Julia Perczel.  Helen’s forthcoming monograph ‘The Materiality of Nothing’ draws together over 10 years of research on the consumption and disposal of objects and materials.


Photo credit: Pawel Czerwinski, Unsplash