Five Ways Tech Can Reduce Recycling Contamination

28 September 2021



With the headlines dominated by the pandemic, driver shortages and changes to household waste volumes over the last year, another long-standing issue saw less coverage. Yet contamination, and the large associated costs, remains high on the list of concerns we hear from our local authority customers.

The problem of contaminated household (kerbside) recycling is well known to waste and recycling service managers. Whether for processing in the UK, or for export, the requirement for high-quality, well-separated materials is now higher than ever. Dry recycling containing erroneous materials (the big four offenders being black bags, textiles, food waste and nappies) is highly costly to pick through and sort, and importantly results in the rejection of entire loads, which are then sent to landfill. Previous reports have identified costs of around £50,000 a month for councils in having to dispose of contaminated recycling loads.

Yet, this continues to be a hard problem to crack.

The fact is that people find it hard to comply with what councils are asking them to do. Figures from WRAP on recycling attitudes and reported behaviour in 2020 revealed that around 45% of UK households have added one or more “serious contaminants” to their recycling collection. We have seen few councils recording levels of contamination that high, but figures of between 15-25% are not uncommon.

With many brands eager to encourage more sustainable consumption of their products, people often cite confusion caused by recycling labelling on packaging. And different arrangements in different local authorities, often driven by local processing availability and capability, is another factor that we know makes it harder for people when they move between different areas (there are thought to be about 300 different recycling schemes in operation across England alone).

Perhaps, most unfortunate of all, some contamination results from people who are trying to do the right thing. As a survey by the Centre for Social Innovation and Keep Britain Tidy noted, “committed recyclers were some of the worst offenders for contamination”. So called wish-cycling is where residents add non-recyclable materials to their recycling in the hope that it can be recycled, and perhaps with the belief that it can be easily pulled out if it isn’t recyclable.

So, if the issue persists, what can local authorities do to improve matters? Here we share five different ways in which digital technologies are helping local authorities to reduce contamination.

Collect data to quantify the problem

First and foremost, technology can help in the collection and analysis of data on the scale of the problem and geographic hotspots of contamination. Unfortunately, studies by WRAP have shown crews often aren’t reporting contamination issues. Reported contamination can often be less than 1% of households even where Materials Recovery Facility (MRF) reported contamination is as high as 20%. By recording contamination events quickly and easily on In-Cab units, your crews will provide a much more complete and accurate record of contamination than can be achieved with paper round sheets. This should act as the basis for all your contamination strategy that follows.

Educate residents using digital tools

All councils have some form of education programme to help residents understand what should go into each of their recycling containers and what to do with materials that their local authority doesn’t collect. Increasingly, local authorities are supplementing their traditional paper leaflets with digital website tools and apps that can help them reach new audiences in more engaging and cost-effective ways. For example, our ReCollect solution has helped customers reduce contamination by 3% during the year of launch, as well as saving over £10,000 in design, print and postage costs.

Make it easier for crews to record contamination

One of the most effective ways to signal to residents that they are not recycling items correctly is to leave the container uncollected. More than anything, this action is likely to get someone’s attention. To avoid future calls and to begin the education process, best practice is to mark uncollected containers with a sticker or card providing details on why the recycling container wasn’t collected. With research showing that crews themselves are often not flagging contamination, third parties going ahead to check and tag bins has proved to be an effective, but expensive solution to the issue. Where technology can help is by being able to compare in-cab reported contamination with that taken on spot checks, and then, where a discrepancy is found, giving drivers a fast and effective way to report contamination issues, with video evidence where appropriate, on their in-cab tablets.

Empower customer contact teams to engage residents

Another point to consider is customer contact. Where crews have identified contamination it’s important that this information is made available to customer experience channels, such as the contact centre, CRM system and website forms. Having an integrated waste and recycling solution that connects processes from first customer contact through to the in-cab units in vehicles ensures that contaminated bins aren’t mixed up with missed bins in your workflows, and that when customers do contact the council, they are given the correct information about why their recycling wasn’t collected.

Use programmatic advertising to target messages

One final way some councils have succeeded in reducing contamination is through targeted digital engagement and advertising. In this way, specific groups of citizens can be identified from their digital profile and then sent tailored messaging to educate and encourage them to dispose of specific items correctly. One example of this is at Hackney Council, who have used the CAN Citizen Reach service to aim online and social media advertisements featuring advice on recycling waste electrical and electronic equipment (WEEE) to parents with older children still at home, tech enthusiasts and cooking fans: the groups found most likely to keep replacing WEEE goods.


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