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 (156 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.

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