Recycling and recovery

New Keep Britain Tidy report released | Improving public understanding of waste prevention

SUEZ recycling and recovery UK has contributed to a collaborative research project with Keep Britain Tidy on how to communicate waste prevention to the public, through the use of the waste hierarchy.

Waste prevention is crucial in the transition towards a circular economy. “A Guide to Improving Public Understanding of Waste Prevention”, released in February 2024, is an innovative resource that aims to shift the focus beyond recycling, without discouraging it, and to educate the public on how to avoid and reduce waste.

Launched by UK-based independent environmental charity Keep Britain Tidy, the guide is a collaboration between CIWM, Greater Manchester Combined Authority, Merseyside Recycling and Waste Authority, SUEZ recycling and recovery UK, and with the support of players of People’s Postcode Lottery.

The guide is designed to equip local authorities, those working in the waste sector, behavioural change practitioners, policy makers, among others, with practical, evidence-based tips on effective waste communication.

The path to waste prevention

Many people believe recycling is the best thing they can do to reduce the environmental impact of the things they buy. Therefore, current communications need to convey that reducing what they buy and extending the life of things they already have, above recycling, is a more environmentally sustainable approach.

Using a three-stage process that included a review of the current waste hierarchy, focus groups and workshops, and user testing (a sample of 2,190 UK adults aged 18+), the research took place in late 2023 and early 2024 with support from DJS Research Ltd and Feedback Market Research.

Research results yielded useful insights, for instance 32% of the participants felt they have no control over the products available to them, leading to a sense of helplessness regarding waste. The research also showed there is confusion over terminology. Jargons like ‘waste hierarchy’ and ‘reduce/reuse/recycle’ is not well understood. In fact, 30% of people believe all three Rs mean the same thing.

The study revealed that people want clear, actionable information, such as specific ways to reduce waste and an understanding of their actions’ impacts. Positive messaging is also important in that people respond better to messages that celebrate progress. There should also be local focus, where messages put the spotlight on local environmental and economic benefits. Highlighting how local reuse services create local jobs can be a powerful tool because it is something people care about.

The art of clear communication

In terms of crafting effective messages, the guide proposes:

  • Focus on buying less: Move beyond recycling and emphasise buying less and maximising what people already own. This is important especially since 32% of UK population admitted to buying things they want but do not really need.
  • Clear and easy-to-understand language: Avoid jargon like ‘hierarchy’ and instead focus on actionable steps with terms such as ‘donate’, ‘repair’, and ‘pre-loved’ items, for instance.
  • Repeated messages: To encourage significant changes in public buying behaviour, they need to hear repeated messages about this from various sources.
  • Highlight benefits: Frame waste prevention as a way to save money, support local businesses, help create jobs, and protect the environment.
  • Offer practical tips: Provide concrete actions like buying second-hand, borrowing items, and repairing things.
  • Show real people making changes: Share stories to inspire and normalise waste prevention efforts.

When it comes to the concept of the three Rs, the suggestion is to use more specific words and phrases with clear instructions. For instance, be specific when using the word ‘recycling’ to mean using the recycling bin or service. It is also useful to use clear images and symbols to illustrate the desired behaviours.

This new approach to waste prevention elicited a positive response from participants. Over half (58%) of participants now realise there are better ways to help the environment than just recycling. Most people (73%) believe they can take action based on this new information. For 65% of participants, the message is clear and catches people’s interest and 69% say the message feels positive. Over half (51%) are motivated to protect the planet because of this, and 36% say they will change their buying and waste habits.

These positive results indicate that the new approach to communicating waste prevention is a valuable tool. For more information and to download the report, “A Guide to Improving Public Understanding of Waste Prevention” click here.