Reinforcing the recycling message

Arun Sudhaman reports on the country-wide battle to convince a cynical public of the environmental and financial benefits of recycling

For communicators charged with making the case for recycling, the start of 2009 has proved tricky. After years of steady support, recession has sparked a backlash against recycling, with reports of a collapse in demand for recycled materials.

The coverage has hit home in every UK region, because of local authority recycling responsibilities. In the Black Country, recycling plants serve 15 local authorities, including areas as far afield as London and North Wales. Aylesbury currently processes all of the UK's newsprint.

Other stories have raised the spectre of old television sets being sent to Nigerian landfill sites instead of recycling centres, while pushing incineration as a better alternative. The issue was further muddied by the emergence of new ‘co-mingled' recycling bins - used in Brighton & Hove, for example - which attracted criticism for being less effective than separate containers.

Nick Gammage, director of comms at the Waste & Resources Action Programme, believes the backlash marked the first time doubt was raised in people's minds. ‘People were recycling because they believed what they recycled was being put to good use,' says Gammage. ‘The big concern was that the whole thing had fallen apart and was no longer worthwhile.'

For Seb Gordon, media officer for the environment at the Local Government Association, the issue was brought home by a taxi ride in London. ‘The driver told me he thought his recycling just ended up in the ground in India. Clearly some people still have a worrying perception that recycling is pointless.'

After a decade of growth in recycling rates, to a level of 40 per cent, it was clear plenty of PR work still needed to be done. Gammage admits the fall in prices for recycled materials hurt the industry, but believes the best way to address the situation is by intensively communicating facts - that the issues are not as serious as have been reported.

‘It's about marshalling good-quality data and making it regularly available,' he says. ‘We make data available every fortnight now, instead of every month.' Gammage says the key issue is to reassure people that recycling does make a difference. ‘The main thing is to remind them that recycling is the best environmental option,' he explains.

At Brighton & Hove City Council,head of corporate comms John Shewell found residents can be sceptical about whether they are getting value for moneywhen it comes to recycling. ‘This is a hearts and minds battle and the way to win it is to find out what motivates people to oppose such initiatives,' he says.

Gordon's approach is to focus on the financial benefits of recycling. ‘We have to show people the benefits of recycling,' he says. ‘There has to be a carrot, not just a stick, and that carrot can be council tax.'

Not that this is an easy message to get across. Gordon addressed this difficulty by commissioning research on excessive packaging from supermarkets, which was widely covered in the media. ‘The point of that story was to say that excessive packaging and non-recyclable packaging pushes up your council tax bill because it ends in landfill, where councils have to pay for it.'

Gammage believes ‘volume control' is now returning to the recycling debate, but notes that local governments across the country should not assume the crisis is over: ‘We're not saying everything's fine, but there is a more informed debate.'

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