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Viridor 2017 Recycling Index: UK public increasingly confused and concerned about recycling

25th September 2017
  • Only 25% believe that all waste that can be recycled is recycled
  • Fewer than one in five (16%) people feel recycling labelling on product packaging is very easy to understand
  • Most consumers predict negative consequences if recycling levels do not increase, and are open to initiatives that could lead to an increase in recycling levels
  • They also believe product manufacturers and businesses selling products should contribute more to the cost of recycling

Viridor, one the UK’s biggest recycling and renewable energy companies, today launches the 2017 edition of its UK Recycling Index to shed new light on the UK’s attitudes to recycling, against the backdrop of declining recycling rates.

The Index findings coincide with the start of National Recycle Week 2017 (25th Sep-7th Oct), which aims to encourage household recycling.

The Index highlights public frustration in product labelling and recycling collection systems, as well as a lack of confidence in those perceived to be responsible for recycling. It also illustrates growing concern about the negative consequences should recycling levels continue to fall.

There is confusion at a product level, with very few consumers finding recycling labelling on product packaging easy to understand:

  • Only half (49%) find it easy to tell whether black plastic food trays or disposable coffee cups are easy to recycle.

Two thirds (66%) of the UK public are also frustrated that different councils recycle items in different ways, and fewer consumers are now confident that they put their waste in the right bins:

  • Only four in ten (43%) are now very confident that they put different waste in the right bins (6% fall since 2016).

Paul Brown, Managing Director of Recycling and Integrated Assets at Viridor, said: “The public are confused about what and how to recycle, with the range of collection approaches in the UK and the stretching of local authority collection periods leading to continued contamination of potentially good material for recycling.  A more standardised approach to waste collection, across local authority boundaries, would deliver economies of scale, encourage more social infrastructure in the right places and help boost economic growth.

“The 2017 Recycling Index also shows a clear need for better education, with seven in ten (69%) people feeling frustrated about not having enough education materials on recycling. The success of the recycling process begins with the public and it’s heartening that people really do want to do the right thing, but they need a clear and concise message from their local authorities if we are to collectively improve recycling performance and reach national targets.

There is a growing lack of trust in those perceived to be responsible for recycling. There is now a 43% trust gap between people who think National Government is responsible for recycling waste and those who trust them a great deal to ensure their waste is recycled properly (a 6% increase since 2016).

Seven in ten believe tax payers are being held accountable for the cost of recycling products, but think the product manufacturers and businesses selling products should be paying this cost, highlighting that the public believes responsibility lies at the start of a product’s life.

However, consumers are also willing to do their share and are open to initiatives that could lead to an increase in recycling levels:

  • Seven in ten (69%) would be willing to pay for a deposit return scheme. The products most would consider using a deposit return scheme for are glass bottles (49%), plastic bottles (44%) and batteries (44%)
  • Nine in ten (89%) would consider using refillable packaging. However, only a third (35%) currently do, with the main barriers being a lack of awareness and availability. For example, 46% of those who currently do not use refillable packaging say it is because not all shops / supermarkets offer the service

The public also wants more nationwide consistency and ambition to tackle the issue. 71% agree that a consistent recycling collection system around the UK would increase recycling rates, while 82% agree that recycling targets should be standardised across England, Scotland and Wales. Going further, 45% think England’s ambition to recycle 50% of its waste by 2020 isn’t ambitious enough, contrasting with the 13% that feel the EU’s target of 70% by 2020 is inadequate.

Sarah Heald, Director of Corporate Affairs & Investor Relations at Viridor’s parent company, Pennon Group, said: “This research shows the public increasingly expects sustainable recycling for all packaging, but especially for plastics which they consider to be the most polluting of all household items. Black plastic recycling is a particular challenge.  We are committed to developing a sustainable solution, ideally following a regional trial to prove the recyclability of a new detectable form of black packaging.”

UK consumers recognise there could be a number of negative consequences in the next 50 years if there is not an increase in the amount of waste that is recycled or used to create energy. For example, three-quarters (73%) of the public believe it is likely there will be oceans full of plastic and seven in ten (69%) believe high levels of water contamination are likely.

The UK Recycling Index was launched by Viridor in 2016 to track changes in recycling over time and identify new trends impacting consumer behaviour. This second edition of the Index is based on an in-depth survey of 1,500 people conducted across the UK in August and September 2017 and provides a comprehensive overview of public attitudes to recycling, including key regional differences[2].

[1]  DEFRA – 44.9% of UK household waste was recycled in 2014, dropping to 44.3% in 2015. In England, the figure dropped to 43.9% in 2015.

[2] The Index surveyed 1,500 people online in Cardiff, Glasgow, Manchester, London and the South West (Exeter and Taunton).

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