Porritt: What if recycling isn’t the first step to environmental engagement?

1st July, 2014 by Jonathon Porritt

If we want to tackle waste, we have to “regulate the hell out of this whole under-performing mess” – says (a little bit of) Jonathon Porritt.

If you’ll forgive an incoherently mixed metaphor, recycling has always been the cornerstone of the ‘foot in the door’ approach to promoting more sustainable lifestyles.

‘Foot in the door’ simply means persuading people to do the little things first, to build up confidence, before doing some bigger things. In other words, get people recycling first (as just about the easiest pro-sustainability behaviour change imaginable), and pretty soon they’ll be out there crusading for a full-on transformation of the global economy.

The assumption that it works, with people moving up the ladder of engagement, is still widespread. But what if recycling isn’t as obvious a first step as we’ve always thought?

That’s certainly what the latest research from the University of Exeter, conducted in collaboration with Coca Cola Enterprises, would seem to indicate. Their “Unpacking the Household” study, looking in detail at the behaviour of just 20 families in the UK and France over a six-month period, came up with some rather sobering conclusions:

  • People aren’t particularly rational about recycling, and act in very instinctive ways.
  • People really aren’t very well informed about the benefits of recycling, and have very little idea about what happens to their recycled stuff.
  • There’s still a lot of scepticism about whether it’s worth it, as in, “Won’t it all end up in the landfill site anyway?”

It’s difficult not to be a little bit depressed about this – after 40 years of campaigning and awareness raising to increase levels of recycling. It’s true that those levels of recycling have increased substantially over the last decade or so, and a recent YouGov poll confirmed, reassuringly, that more than 60% of people in the UK and France see recycling as a “moral and environmental duty”. But why is it then that only half of all plastic bottles, for instance, are being recycled in those countries? Even now!

So what conclusions should we draw from such findings? That’s it’s just a question of stimulating new thinking to break bad habits? That we simply need to double down on our education efforts – particularly with young people? That companies should do their utmost to get consumers to understand what happens to their recycled stuff?

Coca Cola Enterprises has now teamed up with OpenIDEO to use its network of 60,000 innovators to come up with new and compelling solutions.

All good stuff. But what if this kind of research is telling us something different? What if the whole “foot in the door” theory, nudging people along a pathway to ever greater and greener virtue, is just so much hogwash? What if the majority of people just don’t care enough to do their “environmental duty” – ever?!

Which is why, 40 years on, a little bit of me says regulate the hell out of this whole under-performing mess. First incentivise householders to do the right thing; then beat them with some heavy financial burdens until they comply. At the same time, stick some serious, mandatory Extended Producer Responsibilities on all those companies responsible for packaging waste, ramp up investment in recycling infrastructure, and get real, finally, about closing these particular material loops as one tiny part of moving towards a more circular economy.

Not so much a foot in the door as barging the door down!

Jonathon Porritt is Founder Director of Forum for the Future.
His latest book, ‘The World We Made’ (£24.95, Phaidon) is available from www.phaidon.com/store

Photo credit: Danny Bailey/iStock/Thinkstock

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