Four Ways for City and Metropolitan Councils to Change Behaviour Around Recycling - Part 1

19 June 2023



City and metropolitan councils face specific challenges in increasing recycling rates. With larger urban areas, and often a very high proportion of flats and communal collections, these authorities need to think differently about both household recycling infrastructure and resident engagement.

Urban areas also tend to have younger and more transient populations than rural areas with a higher number of non-native speakers. These challenges are part of the reason that in general cities and metropolitan areas have lower than average recycling rates.

Our analysis of 2021/22 figures from Defra shows that while other local authorities across England had an overall recycling rate of 43%, the figure for metropolitan councils was 39% and for city councils was 36%.

Key Recycling Challenges for Cities and Mets:

  • High number of flats and communal collections
  • Lack of space for recycling containers inside and outside properties
  • Younger and more mobile populations
  • Multiple languages
  • Higher contamination
  • Problem areas

While city and metropolitan councils may not ultimately be able to achieve the same recycling rates as less urban councils, there are a number of ways they can address some of the challenges they face and improve their overall recycling rate.

In this two part blog series we describe four initiatives that we see as key. In part 1 we start by looking at the challenge of recycling in flats and communal collections, and at how to engage younger demographics.

#1 - Giving residents in flats more specific information

Recycling in flats is significantly lower than in houses. Several studies have looked into the reasons for this and drawn some common conclusions.

Residents have less space to store recycling inside their property and taking recycling to the collection point is often not easy. The communal bin stores used in flats are often out of the way, overflowing and unpleasant for residents to visit. Even motivated recyclers can be easily put off.

Another issue for residents is knowing what they can and can’t recycle and where each item should go. Better signage in communal bin stores has been proven to increase recycling, but really residents need the information with them at all times. Someone is unlikely to go back home for an item they realise they can recycle, and likewise unlikely to take back an item that a sign tells them they can’t.

The ‘How to Recycle’ web pages on most council websites are geared towards the containers provided to houses. Information for residents of flats is either hard to find or just not there. This one size fits all approach results in frustration for residents who want to recycle (low participation) and the wrong materials ending up in the wrong waste streams (high contamination).

Look up searches based on addresses or postcodes offer a much better solution, where flats and other non-standard properties can be given specific and comprehensive information quickly to help them make a good choice as they dispose of their item.

For example, Routeware’s Waste Wizard web tool, which is currently used across Buckinghamshire, Surrey, Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire, lets residents search how to dispose of their object from a database covering tens of thousands of different items, including brand names and misspellings.

Importantly, the information is given is specific to a resident’s property. Flats and properties with communal collections are not being given inappropriate generic guidance.


#2 - Engage younger demographics where they are present

It’s well known that younger people are less likely to recycle and more likely to make errors when they do.

In 2020, the White Lies Report, commissioned by the retailer AO, explored attitudes towards recycling of common household goods. Based on the survey of over 4,200 people across the UK, the report revealed that 18-24 year olds were least likely to recycle in 13 of the 15 categories of household waste considered, whereas over 55s recycled the most in 11 of the 15 categories. Engaging and educating this younger group is hugely important, especially for cities and urban areas which have a lower age profile than other council areas.

It won’t come as a surprise to anyone that younger age groups engage with organisations through different channels than their older counterparts. Multiple surveys back up the fact that younger citizens spend more time on the internet, more time on apps, and more time on social media than other age groups.

Which means councils need to meet these younger citizens where they are - through apps on their phone and engaging while they are using the internet or social media.

On their phones

Retail and business brands use apps as part of a multi-channel strategy as they offer easy to use, but focused engagement of users. It’s not that these apps are seeking to completely replace other channels, but rather to supplement them in a way that enhances the overall customer experience.

Forward thinking councils like South Norfolk, have seen apps become one of their key communication channels for waste and recycling information with 2,000 app downloads in the first week of launch, and over 10,000 app downloads in the first 2 months.

On the internet and social media

Some councils have reduced contamination using digital programmatic advertising. With this, groups of residents with specific demographics, interests and geolocations can be reached wherever they are online – across websites, apps, and social media – with tailored creatives encouraging correct recycling behaviours.

When people click on an ad, and if they accept retargeting pixels, they are also shown follow-up reminder ads on other websites and social media channels in future.

Hackney Council used CAN Digital to employ this approach for a post-Christmas campaign on recycling waste electrical and electronic equipment (WEEE), targeting parents with older children and tech enthusiasts – groups most likely to keep replacing these goods. WEEE recycling tonnage increased by 224% in the borough year-on-year as a result.


Read more here about our Waste Wizard and other citizen-facing tools and apps, or contact us to set up a quick conversation.


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