Changing behaviours around recycling waste should be fairly straightforward.
Most local authorities (at least here in the UK) offer a pretty good from-home recycling service. Many products have the recycling symbol stamped on them and a message along the ‘Reduce, Reuse, Recycle’ lines. Messaging has been going out for years about the need to reduce landfill.
But in the face of persistently low recycling rates here in the UK, what more can be done to improve the situation before we run out of holes in the ground to bury perfectly recyclable goods?
In this post, I’m going to look at the issue using the EAST model, plus highlighting a surprisingly engaging social media campaign which, in my opinion, is build on solid social marketing principles to promote sustainable behavioural change.
There are two fundamental reasons to reuse or recycle something here in the UK – financial gain (perhaps more appropriately, avoidance of loss) or contributing to long-term environmental improvement.
In the first instance, if we have to pay for a supermarket carrier bag, reusing it later avoids the loss of money needed to buy a new one on the next visit. Repurposing an old bath sheet into a towel for the dog’s muddy feet makes economic sense – why shell out £10+ for a special dog towel when your perfectly-serviceable-if-too-tatty-for-the-guest-suite old human towel will do just as well? Cutting up an old sideboard into a set of shelves might be a bit beyond many people’s skillset, but it’s another example of needing something and avoiding a loss to gain it.
For the second, many of us recycle because we know that we’re not only running out of holes in the ground to put things, but that we’re an energy-limited universe and it makes logical sense to conserve energy where we can. Turning old bottles into new ones takes less energy than creating new ones from scratch, for example.
Both reasons are equally valid. The first represents visible short term results while the second may yield short term self satisfaction (on comparing the volume of recycling to remaining residual waste, for example) as well as longer term benefits which can’t be directly determined.
Each factor is also pretty strong and speaks to intrinsic (‘I want to do good things and feel good about doing them’) and extrinsic (‘I want something new or unique and to be noted for it’) motivations.
And yet… 45% household recycling rate – on average – here in the UK. It’s not really good enough, is it?
The EAST model might give some clue as to what is missing in the behavioural equation.
Easy – most places in the UK have a good kerbside recycling pick up service. Information available on leaflets/local authority websites can be variable but, in essence, is usually fairly easy to get hold of (even for the digitally unconnected). Certainly most urban dwellers don’t need to do anything more complicated than put a can/bottle/newspaper in bin 1, and an unrecyclable lump of something else in bin 2.
in addition, virtually all recyclable products have the recycling symbol on them somewhere – so individuals don’t need an encyclopedic knowledge of the different types of PET plastics to make the right judgement.
Timely – every time a person picks up an empty item and walks towards a bin, there’s the opportunity for a timely reminder to recycle. Nudged, one would hope, by the packaging design, prominence of recycling logo or in-home information.
Attractive – logically, recycling is an attractive option, either for relatively immediate reward (finance) or longer term satisfaction (save the planet). However, I haven’t yet seen a campaign which makes enough of a salient emotional case for either of these. It also doesn’t help that the rewards are generally fairly small – 5/10p for an extra carrier bag framed against a £20 grocery shop isn’t hugely compelling in each individual instance. Recycling now to save the planet later – when you might be dead anyway – isn’t a massively compelling motivation unless you’re already predisposed to this type of long term thinking.
Social – creating public promises and commitments is a powerful behavioural motivator, not only for the individual who has to live up to those but also to the community around them who may be inspired to reflect on their own behaviours (‘If X can do it, why can’t I?’). Again, I haven’t seen any really strong campaigns using social motivations (or even, for that matter, normative behaviours) which don’t frame the subject of the campaign as anything other than a world-saving do-gooder on a mission.
Make recycling easier, make it attractive and make it social – they’re the first obvious opportunities to boost recycling rates.
Really, recycling couldn’t be that much more straightforward but, as Keith Freegard of Axion suggests, there’s more that could be done in terms of packaging design and even fundamental packaging construction. Working at the design level would help to nudge individual behaviour, while working at the construction level (making manufacturers included higher levels of recycled content) would mean that consumers already use more recycled material without changing their own behaviours.
To make it attractive may require social marketers to work at a national policy level – pay-as-you-throw, for example, is one option (waste is paid for by weight whereas recycling is collected for free). Or campaigns will need to be developed to speak to the individual in such a way as to trigger their primary motivations, thus making the action attractive at an individual scale (but it will need to be continually attractive for the behaviour to stick).
On the attractive point, Unilever partnered with Greenredeem to reward recyclers with points to spend in local businesses, which they then also commuted to charitable donations. Although not quite ‘pay as you throw’, this type of initiative does help an individual see the immediate consequences of their actions (accumulation of points), which could be enough of a reward to help the behaviour stick. [I am also aware that other countries offer rebates when bringing empty bottles back to shops, or cash when delivering them to a recycling centre. The UK is severely lacking in this respect]
Making it social is more fun and there are some great opportunities to involve whole communities. Collective recycling drives, social media campaigns, public pledges – all of these could be used to raise the conversation and have individuals not only comparing/contrasting their behaviours with those of others, but also seeing their efforts directly contributing to a greater whole (‘this street recycles more than that street’ for example).
Which leads us to the #UpcycleRevolution initiative
In a good piece of social marketing, Gumtree, a UK classifieds website, has reached out to 20 influential crafty bloggers, giving them each £100 to buy something from the site and ‘upcycle’ it (i.e. restore it and give it a new lease of life). On June 16th, the bloggers will each take their creations to a judging event in London where the winning upcycler will be given £500 to donate to a charity of their choice.
Why should this work?
It’s probably safe to assume that the bloggers have been invited to take part because of their standing within the upcycling/crafting community or other key metrics which led the Gumtree team to choose them.
This social capital is likely to mean that they hold nodal status within their communities, thus are able to act as Messengers (within the MINDSPACE model definition). In terms of this campaign, two principle things should be achieved:
- Legitimisation; leveraging the bloggers’ trusted status and social capital, the campaign stands above others which might simply be viewed as well intentioned and worthy, but unsupported by relatable influencers.
- Behavioural normalisation; by expanding the network through nodal promotion (and commercial CSR promotion from Gumtree, of course), the upcycling behaviour comes out of the craft room and into the living room, normalising it and encouraging wider adoption.
In addition, people love a competition – either taking part or by participating through voting, social-sharing etc. As a simple gamification element, the £100 gift and £500 charitable donation are powerful incentives to get involved and share the progress (I’m willing to bet that Gumtree’s ROI from people writing about and engaging with the campaign is greater than the £2,500 cost).
It is also important to note that while Gumtree have a commercial interest in this working, because they’ve pitched to the passions of their bloggers, those people don’t mind acting as message agents for the brand because, in so doing, it enables them to satisfy their own needs to share, to create, and to be noticed for doing so.
The key take away is…
Keep it simple. I know, it’s an over-used mantra. But for both sides of this discussion, it works well.
Work based on EAST will be most effective when the desired behaviours are broken down to simple components – anything too complex falls at the ‘Easy’ part.
And the #UpcycleRevolution is actually quite glorious in its simplicity – the brand barely has to do any work (the community should do it all for them largely through social media), the message is extremely straightforward (buy a bargain and make what you want) and it’s pretty easy to follow the progress of the chosen crafters (on that – Gumtree could have provided a list of blogs. I’ve researched for a while and haven’t found them all).
Simplicity removes barriers to adoption and enables you to create work that clearly and cleanly addresses identified objectives which can later be evaluated to see how well the campaign worked.
Here in the UK, we have a long way to go to get our recycling rates up and our excessive consumption behaviours down. However, with the right behavioural thinking and more meaningful brand involvement, I think that it can be done…
If you would like to share some of the great work to promote recycling that you’ve seen in your home territory, please leave a comment below!
If you’re interested in following the #UpcycleRevolution bloggers, I’ve found the following links. Not sure who the others are at this stage, but I’ll keep looking… Rachael Jess; Love Neillie; Cold Tea & Smelly Nappies; My Make Do And Mend Life; Rock and Roll Pussy Cat; Bec Boop; Natalie’s Upcycle Revolution; Vicky Myers Creations; EcoChic Interiors; New Craft Society; Mummy To The Max;
Featured image for this post discovered on the Gumtree #UpcycleRevolution blog.