Dealing With Recycling Apathy

paper not being recycled

I spend most of my working week in an office that I share with around 8 or 9 other people and despite having a green blogger in their midst, many seem fairly lax in their attitudes to recycling.

We have one big black bin for all our recycling and most of us have our own little waste bins next to our desks and over the last few weeks I have tried my best to encourage people to think before they bin anything. Alas, I still go around the office towards the end of the day and find plenty of recyclable material sitting in the waste bins.

Is it really such a hassle to get up off your backside, walk a few metres (and that is all it is in our small office) and put paper, card, plastic and glass into the recycling bin?

Initially I thought it might be because people aren’t sure what can and can’t be recycled. It might seem obvious to many but I kind of understand this feeling when it comes to things such as sandwich packaging which has both card and plastic film attached to each other.

So I found out who is responsible for recycling for our office (First Mile) and printed off their list of accepted materials. Now even these aren’t entirely clear, for instance it does not say whether lids need to be taken off plastics bottles before they can be recycled or whether the film on sandwich packs should be peeled away from the cardboard. My own approach is to use common sense or a quick Google search if you are unsure.

Now that they had the information available to them stuck to the wall near the bin, would my colleagues increase their recycling rates? Well, a couple of people have taken to the idea and often ask me about an item if they are not sure whether or not it can be recycled but on the whole, things haven’t really changed a great deal.

This got me thinking; I have an interest in psychology and while I have no formal qualifications to that end, I am very much intrigued by the actions people take and why they take them.

I spoke to one of my colleagues, let’s call him G, and he said some really interesting things. I had found a sandwich packet in his bin the previous day so I asked him if there was any reason why he hadn’t gotten up, walked the 5 metres across the room and put it in the recycling bin. He said something along the lines of:

“I was sitting down; I can’t throw the thing 5 metres.”

This didn’t really surprise me; it’s probably indicative of many people who are busy in their working lives and who don’t think too much about binning something which could be recycled.

I asked G about the wider population and he agreed, saying:

“They don’t see it making an immediate difference; it disappears all the same in one bin or the other.”

I think G has hit the nail on the proverbial head here because unless you have made recycling into a habit like I have, you probably don’t think about the outcome of your actions very much given everything else that goes on in your day.

The sad fact of life is that if something does not directly affect you, chances are you don’t have a lot of time to go around thinking about it. Recycling does not have a direct impact on a person’s life; as G said, the rubbish disappears both physically and mentally no matter which bin you put it in.

This poses a real problem when it comes to encouraging people to recycle: what can you or I or government do to give people the drive and determination to recycle as much as they physically can?

Pay As You Throw

An approach that has been implemented in a number of countries around the world is that of having to pay for the general waste you produce while enjoying recycling collections for free.

The aim is to incentivise people to be as fastidious with their waste as possible. In this way, everything that can be recycled should be recycled and a person will end up paying if they choose to ignore this.

If you want proof of this working then you only need to look at the small town of Neustadt an der Weinstrasse in Germany where recycling rates are 70% (compared to the UK’s 40% or so).

Residents of the town have to pay €6.60 for a fortnightly collection of a 60 litre bin. In the UK, where the standard wheelie bin size is 240 litres, the equivalent fee would be €24 every 2 weeks or €624 per year.

Whether you like it or not, those sorts of charges would make people a lot more careful when it comes to what they throw out – cutting the cost by more than 72% by using just a 60 litre bin would be a huge incentive to change the habits of a person or family.

If a similar scheme were setup for businesses with free recycling collections and hefty charges for landfill waste, then any smart business owner would look to cut costs wherever possible and better police their own staff while finding ways of encouraging them towards optimum recycling.

Take Away The Convenience

There have been bins next to or underneath desks in every office I have ever worked in and if we look back at what G said earlier, it becomes clear that this sort of convenience is a foremost reason for people to bin recyclable material.

I am going to propose something in my little office and it’s not going to be popular. I want to get rid of all the bins underneath people’s desks and have just two bins in the entire office – one for general waste and one for recycling. They will be right next to each other so you are going to have to get up off your bum regardless of what you want to throw away. When there is no additional effort required to recycle something than to bin something, I believe most people will choose to recycle.

I’ll let you know how it goes if I can persuade everyone to participate.

Form A Habit

According to research by University College London, it takes 66 days to form a new habit and knowing this allows local governments or community movements to plan events and challenges around recycling. If you can make these last more than 66 days, then by the end of it you should have loads of new people for which recycling has become the norm.

Ok, so I’m probably not being oh so realistic in this respect; 66 days is a long time and only those who are genuinely committed are going to put the effort into such a challenge.

However, if local governments were to make changes which enforce recycling upon us, then after 66 days most of us would probably accept it as the way things are – sure a few would continue to complain but that’s nothing new.

Attitudinal Change

Aside from convenience, there is a real issue with some people’s attitudes towards recycling. In these people, the all for one and one for all spirit is virtually non-existent; they just cannot see a reason why they should recycle anything.

This is a problem with society and not just the individual because not enough time and thought is given to the future state of this world. We need everyone to start taking some responsibility for their own actions, we need to make them realise that they do not own a single square inch of this planet. As cliché as it sounds, people should want to leave this world for future generations in a way that they themselves would want to find it.

The problem with wider attitudes across whole societies is that they can take years, if not decades, to change and much of the time it only happens after something bad has happened.

In this case, people may not feel they have to worry too much about waste or recycling until the UK has run out of landfill space and governments are being forced to convert green field sites into new rubbish dumps. Only then would we get the same sort of fierce backlash as we have been seeing against the recent austerity measures or NHS reforms.

And So I End My Rant

I guess this whole post has been born of frustration; the people in my office aren’t bad people by any stretch of the imagination, I believe that they all want to recycle and probably do recycle a great deal of their own household waste.

The thing is, I don’t see the difference between home and work in this regard – why should it matter more when you are at home then when you are in the office?

Does every workplace need a GreenSteve in it, encouraging people to recycle? Maybe it does, maybe you could be it?

What are your thoughts? Do you recycle everything that can be recycled? Leave your comments below.

Steve (152 Posts)

I am chief writer and editor on Green Steve. Blogging since 2011, I like to delve into a wide number of topics to help people reduce their carbon footprint. You should follow me on Twitter here. And add me to your Google+ circles here.

14 Responses to “Dealing With Recycling Apathy”

  1. Catherine
    March 8, 2012 at 7:08 PM

    Great post, Steve.. I feel exactly as you do about everything you have said. I am really efficient with our household recycling, every last thing we can gets recycled, if not it gets reused, I try to reduce the amount of products I buy that are in packaging that cannot be reused or recycled.. the very last port of call is the landfill bin, and every time (no kidding, EVERY time) I throw something into the landfill bin I feel so guilty :( When I’m out and about I find myself being cross that the council haven’t made more effort to make recycling bins available in the street. But I spend every day trying to do right by our world (as you do) and every little helps (NOT promoting that chain of supermarkets, they have a LOT to answer for).. Apathy is worse than laziness, but they can both me combatted by being a good role model I reckon! :)

    • Steve
      March 9, 2012 at 10:12 AM

      Thanks Catherine, I appreciate the warm comments. The street recycling thing is something that I find annoying too – although I live in Westminster where on-street recycling facilities do exist, they are still nowhere near as prevalent as ordinary bins (the ratio is probably 50 to 1) and in my opinion those bins which accept both recycling and general waste should replace every single landfill-only bin on town and city streets. Lord knows how many tonnes of recyclable material are thrown away from those bins every day.

      And as for being a good role model, I honestly believe that if enough people go out of their way to recycle then it will reach a tipping point where it suddenly becomes socially unacceptable to bin things which can be recycled. Until that day comes, we have to do our best as individuals.

  2. Pami
    April 3, 2012 at 12:10 PM

    Plastic bottle tops: here in Italy they are collected for charity, mostly for hospitals. I don’t know how it works but if you are interested then I can find out, but it’s big business! Perhaps a google search will bring up something for the UK.

  3. Ann
    June 26, 2012 at 7:46 AM

    Hi Greensteve

    I would like to comment abut recycling household clothes and goods etc. I take all my unwanted good items to a charity shop in the town where they then make money for their charity. I actually gift aid as I pay tax and get a letter each month telling me how much they made from my goods and they get tax back on top of this. Just had a letter yesterday (they are obliged to let you know how much they sell your items for if you gift aid) telling me they had made £39 from my goods plus the tax they are going to reclaim. I know it does not sound that much but if everyone was to take stuff to them and gift aid if possible, it would make a big difference to them. I started clearing out the attic before my daughter came home and filled it again and it is amazing what you put in there just in case it is needed. My husband takes out screws and anything that could be useful if anything does need to be taken to the tip. My son had my dad’s screws and the other day needed some and there they were costing nothing. I would like to encourge everyone to think of the charity shops and not just throw things in the bin if they could sell them. Even really old clothes that they cannot sell I think they can do something with.

    • Steve
      June 26, 2012 at 9:12 AM

      Most definitely Ann, I have absolutely loads of unwanted things sitting in my flat and since I am going to be moving soon I need to start thinking about taking anything that I don’t want any more down to a charity shop. Even in the centre of London there are a few dotted around and I’m sure they would appreciate some of the things I’ve got lying around.

    • Pami
      June 26, 2012 at 7:12 PM

      In the UK you are really organised for reycling old clothes etc. Sadly, here in Italy, especially down south, this is frowned upon. However, there are some kind souls (and priests!) who collect such items to send to the third world countries. Any really old towels & cushions (and clothes that are too far gone) etc I give to our local animal rescue. Old mobile phone and ink cartridges can be recycled too for your chosen charity. There is a website called ‘freecycle’ that is well known in the UK and USA (and in northern Italy) that is also very useful for re-cycling just about anything you don’t want. Check it out.

      • Steve
        June 27, 2012 at 9:41 AM

        I wouldn’t say we’re super organised in the UK but it is certainly possible to find somewhere to recycle/donate old clothes fairly easily. Why do you think the southern Italians turn their backs on recycling clothes then?

  4. Pami
    June 27, 2012 at 5:25 PM

    They wouldn’t dream of wearing other people’s ‘casts offs’. Charity shops don’t exist here although I have been informed that in central and northern Italy markets sell second hand clothes.

    When I had my offspring (many moons ago!) my English and Danish friends passed on their children’s clothes to me and also a cot, bed linen, buggy and goodness knows what else! He wore second-hand clothes until age 12; they were all in excellent condition although he did wear most of them out! The cot and buggy were returned and are now being used by these same friends’ grandchildren!!

    • Steve
      June 28, 2012 at 10:46 AM

      Ha! Those fashion police fearing Italians – they should get their priorities right. Yeah, I’m the 3rd child in my family and I got things that were passed down and it didn’t really bother me, I think it’s just more of a done thing in the UK.

  5. Ann
    June 28, 2012 at 12:22 PM

    I think it is a good idea having charity shops it is not just clothes but there are many more items in there eg books, electrical items and some have furniture which is still good but someone wanting to update their’s donated. Those famililes on low income love these shops. I have brought some items mainly books but my mum and aunty have found some super famous brand clothes.

    • Pami
      June 29, 2012 at 6:34 AM

      I agree Ann. On my annual visits to the UK to stay with my parents I bought some lovely clothes at the charity shops which I still use regularly. Especially a mohair cardigan which is admired by all my Italian friends!!
      In the present financial climate I’m wondering if perhaps there isn’t now a niche market for these shops?!

  6. Brian
    November 28, 2012 at 2:54 PM

    I am a pretty avid recycler. I used to drive refuse trucks before I retired so I’ve seen the massive landfill sites up close and personal and trust me, it’s not a pretty sight.

  7. March 28, 2014 at 9:12 PM

    It’s true. Recycling has been around for a long time now and municipalities are finally on board and have it smattered all over their “Missions” Truth is it has lost it’s novelty but it still needs to happen… as regular and frequently as buying gas or eating lunch out. Here’s a tip: Mix it up and do something sustainable and earth smart in addition to collecting plastic and tin. It will give you a NEW excited, enthusiastic feeling and create a better sense of balance for you and your crew.

  8. March 28, 2014 at 9:28 PM

    Try this for a new twist for change of pace and to lessen your recycling fatigue. Recycle with worms! I’m doing it pretty successfully and it’s easy and fun- not to mention the nitrogen rich end product you collect for your flowers and vegatives. Visit our blog “The WormFarm Chronicles” we started over a year ago at and learn how to put them to work for you.

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