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Edinburgh ‘nudging’ success in recycling

My belief has always been that making recycling accessible, easy to use, coupled with good and repetitive messaging then the vast majority of people will take part. But I also acknowledge that sometimes we all need a helping hand, even if that helping hand has a degree of subtlety to it. What I mean is that encouraging people to recycle needs to go hand in hand with some discouragement to waste things, as they were used to doing.

Iain Gulland - Chief Executive, Zero Waste Scotland | 9 Jan 15

That is why I cannot praise enough Edinburgh City Council who have received a great post-Christmas present with the news that recycling rates have shot up by 85% since the introduction of smaller refuse bins in targeted areas in the capital.

Reported on the front page of the Edinburgh Evening News, and across the Scottish media, city bosses announced this week that smaller 140 litre bins for waste, piloted across 140,000 households had made a big impact on recycling rates. Households in areas working under the new system recycled 3.5kg per week via their 240lite recycling bin – a 85 % increase in what was the  city-wide average of 2kg.

In addition the collection dates for both recycling and waste were also simplified, with all bins being picked up on the same day.

The smaller bins look set now to be rolled out across the city.

These terrific results show this kind of bold thinking is what’s needed to push up the recycling rate in Scotland towards the 70% target, and Zero Waste Scotland is with councils all the way in making the necessary changes to systems, infrastructure and collections which might help.

But the widespread publicity shows that these changes all get people thinking harder about what they do with their “waste” – where it goes, and the fact it has a life after households or businesses have finished with it. Edinburgh’s experience shows even previously sceptical residents can see the benefit of more and better recycling, and possibly more importantly for other councils considering such bold steps, people can adapt to change if the right infrastructure and messaging is provided.

The subtlety in this is that the differential in bin size between recycling and residual provides a degree of ‘choice editing’ where recycling both looks more ‘important’ and accessible (size of bin) against something less attractive and constraining. I’m no ‘nudge marketing’ expert but this appears to be a tried and tested method to help people to make positive choices over negative choices by some gentle persuasion without them actually realising they have been persuaded.

I’m fascinated if such choice editing could not also be used in other areas where we are seeking to change behaviours. I’m still amazed to see litter bins standing in isolation on our streets and in public places. Like relics of a bygone age they stand testament to the fact that for too long there was no alternative to ‘throwing stuff away’.

Surely we should be compelling the co-location of recycling and ‘waste’ bins on every street corner and public space preferably with the recycling bin twice the size of the waste bin. Evidence from numerous nudge initiatives suggests that the public respond to such positive choice editing with positive action in equal measure.   

Just like Edinburgh Council we need to bold and brave. The public are embracing recycling like never before we need to be confident that they will respond positively to any changes we make.

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