Part 2 - Four Ways for City and Metropolitan Councils to Change Behaviour Around Recycling

18 December 2023



In this two part blog series we describe four initiatives that we see as key in helping city and metropolitan councils face up to their specific challenges in increasing recycling rates.

Previously, we looked at the challenge of recycling in flats and communal collections, and at how to engage younger demographics.

In part 2, we see the benefits of educating on contamination and wishcycling, and offering multi-language communications.

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.

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.

H​ere are a further two ways we have seen councils working smarter.

#3 - Educate on contamination and wishcycling

Contamination remains a big problem for councils. Dry recycling containing erroneous materials (the big four offenders being black bags, textiles, food waste and nappies) is highly costing 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 some councils in having to dispose of contaminated recycling loads. For example, Hampshire County Council estimates they get 20% contamination in their dry mixed recycling and that costs are well over £1 million a year. 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 over four in five (82%) of UK households add one or more items to their recycling collection that their council cannot recycle.

Even when the measure is only on items considered to be “serious contaminants” the figure is still around 45%. With many brands eager to encourage more sustainable consumption of their products, people often cite confusion caused by recycling labelling on packaging.

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 wishcycling 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.

To address contamination some 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.

Educational tools like Routeware’s Online Sorting Game are used at councils such as Surrey, Rhondda Cynon Taf, and Wychavon to teach residents how to recycle items properly.

The game provides a fun and interactive way to engage and educate citizens online, and by seeing what people commonly get wrong, council teams can focus additional communications to improve their resident’s knowledge.

“Our Chairman loved the Waste Sorting Game so much that he immediately started using it as part of his educational eco visits to schools,” said Ian Dipple, Marketing and Communications Manager at Wychavon District Council.

#4 - Offer multi-language communications

With over 2.8 million people in England and Wales (4.9%) reporting they do not speak English very well or at all, engaging and educating this group around recycling offers a large potential reward in improving capture rates.

And with city and metropolitan councils home to a larger proportion of people for whom English is not their main language, the opportunity is even greater for them.

Traditional printed recycling communications are expensive even in a single language. Offering printed information in multiple languages just simply isn’t feasible. And a lack of space in the communal bin area in flats make offering multi-language information impractical here too.

With digital communication channels that’s different. Multi-language recycling tools and apps offer residents the option to see information in their language of choice. This transforms their understanding of the information they presented with and drives much greater engagement with recycling programmes.

Over in the US, the City of Nashville for example saw their recycling contamination rate drop from 46% to 29% in just 3 months after introduction of their digital Waste Wizard tool allowed them to provide materials to residents in Spanish as well as English.

Next Steps

The challenges faced by city and metropolitan councils around recycling are many. Putting in the right infrastructure for residents, an efficient and effective set of collection rounds, and an effective multi-channel communication and engagement strategy, are all tried and tested ways to improve recycling rates and reduce contamination. Used alongside these strategies, digital engagement and education tools can further increase recycling rates at the same as reducing costs for the council.

If you’d like to discuss any aspect of this article, the customer stories referenced or the solutions that have been highlighted, please do get in touch.


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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