Exploring barriers to household recycling and testing whether helping residents to quickly and easily identify if an item can be recycled, how to prepare it for recycling, and what alternative disposable methods are available, would increase recycling rates.

Full Application: Not funded at this stage

Recycling rates vary across the UK and range from 14.1 – 64.5% of household waste sent for reuse, recycling and composting (source:  DEFRA, 2017/18 figures).  The three Local Authorities involved in this project (South Tyneside, Sunderland and Stockton) are in the bottom quartile of this list with household recycling rates of 28.9%, 27.1%, and 24.9% respectively.

There can be many factors that affect recycling levels, including deprivation, rural / urban geography, and the type of recycling scheme offered locally (source:  WRAP recycling performance 2012/13).  However, this project would like to explore the impact of residents’ knowledge in relation to their recycling behaviour, specifically building on the findings of a WRAP report from 2016 that concluded that 75% of households could improve their recycling effectiveness, and that communications are required to improve participation and provide clarity on what can be recycled.

As the three Councils involved in this project are in the bottom quartile of recycling performance, there is a significant financial, economic and environmental driver to explore this problem.  However, we believe the results of the project will be of interest to any Local Authority who are seeking to increase recycling rates.  We also believe that residents will have an interest in this project as we have anecdotal evidence, as well as published research, that suggests there is continued and ongoing confusion about what can and cannot be recycled, which effects recycling behaviour.  For example, Sunderland Council reported over 20,000 contaminated recycling bins in the last 12 months,  highlighting that even where residents are willing to participate in recycling, there are challenges.   The main users for this project are therefore residents and Local Authority staff.  Another important stakeholder is Suez; they are contracted to provide waste processing services for all three Authorities, and are actively involved in the South Tyne and Wear Waste Management Partnership where the target is to increase recycling to 50% by 2020.

Our Discovery project would seek to explore the Hypotheses in more detail and would create a Research Plan that would test the Hypotheses.  This would be done in a workshop involving key staff from all three Councils.

The current hypotheses we have about this problem (that would be further explored and tested in the initial workshop) are:

  1. Residents are confused about what they can and cannot recycle, leading to people either recycling the wrong things, or putting things in to landfill when they could be recycled.
  2. Residents are confused about how to prepare waste for recycling, leading to people ‘giving up’ on recycling and putting things in to landfill when they could be recycled, or putting contaminated waste in recycling (which then ultimately ends up in landfill).
  3. Residents are uniformed about the impact of not recycling and are therefore apathetic about it, leading to low levels of recycling rates.
  4. Residents are uninformed about the alternative methods of waste disposal methods, leading to a low level of recycling rates.
  5. Residents are ambivalent to recycling leading to low levels of recycling rates.

The research methods we would anticipate using to explore this problem would be:

  • User research – resident surveys, interviews and focus groups. Environmental Services staff and / or waste processing personnel surveys and interviews.
  • Observational analysis and shadowing – spending time at the refuse processing sites to observe how waste comes in and what state it is in.
  • Process and journey mapping – exploring and illustrating how waste is treated in the household, then collected, processed and disposed of. We will seek to highlight the customer experience, the financial cost of activities, and any key issues.
  • Desktop analysis – considering published research on the problems and doing web searches to emulate the customer experience.

We will consider any existing information that exists around recycling, including any information on websites, leaflets, campaigns etc, and any projects that have looked at increasing recycling rates and / or considering barriers to recycling.  Part of this will be to understand what has been done and what the impact has been of the action (if the impact analysis is available), as well as looking at website hits and trends where information is published online.

We will then review all the research we have done to enable us to define the problem, creating a problem statement that summarises the:

  • Size and severity of the problem.
  • The case for change
  • The opportunities to address the problem.

Disposing waste in landfill is more expensive (financially and environmentally) than disposing waste via recycling, composting, or diverting waste to an Energy from Waste facility.

If we consider Stockton Council as an illustrative example (the smallest of the three Authorities supporting this bid), in 2018/2019, the Local Authority:

  • Collected a total of 82,501.73 tonnes of Household Waste from 86,460 properties. This included 60,777.58 tonnes of domestic residual waste and 21,724.73 tonnes of household waste sent for recycling, reuse or composting.
  • The overall recycling rate was 26.3%.
  • Around 99% of the residual waste was sent to an Energy from Waste facility (EFW) and only 1% of waste was diverted to Landfill.
  • The cost of disposing of the 60,755.58 tonnes of waste was £4.9 million. In comparison the cost of disposing of the 14,239 tonnes of dry recycling was £22,532.

This illustrates that increasing recycling can therefore have a financial benefit to Authorities as tonnage is diverted away from the higher price line.  If Stockton was to increase its recycling rate by 5% from 26.3% to 31.3% (based on current tonnage and disposal costs) it could potentially offer a saving of £218,027 as shown in the table below:

Current +5% recycling rate
Recycling rate 26.3% 31.3%
Domestic waste tonnage 82,501 79,350 (-3151)
Recycling tonnage 21,724 24,875 (+3151)
Potential disposal saving £218,027

The Stockton example above illustrates the types of financial costs of current operations in one Council, and the potential savings opportunity if recycling rates were higher.

If we are successful in this bid, part of our Discovery will be to understand in more detail the costs and savings opportunities in the three Local Authorities involved, and the high-level estimates for cost saving opportunities of all Councils in the UK.

We will work as a virtual team across the three locations and will establish routines and rituals that will enable all partners to be engaged and informed.  This includes adopting an Agile approach to Discovery, with fortnightly sprints, and sprint planning / review retrospectives meetings taking place fortnightly.  We will also ensure all activities etc are captured in Trello (or something similar) so any stakeholder can see at a glance where the project is up to.  We will also create shared space (Google Drive or Microsoft SharePoint) for the sharing and storage of working documents.

While we will do a lot of our activities separately, we are geographically close enough to easily facilitate joint workshops and meetings with representatives from all three Councils when required.  All Councils are committed to travelling to attend these events when it is required.

South Tyneside (as the lead authority) will facilitate all activities and will take leadership in ensuring deadlines are set and met.  We will have a cross-Council steering group with senior representatives on it that will meet virtually every four – six weeks to monitor progress against the deliverables and to make key decisions.


We would like to benefit from;

  • Support and guidance as and when required directly from MHCLG
  • Being able to send communications and messages through MHCLG channels to help us reach a wider audience
  • Help with engaging with other local authorities that may wish to feed into the project and help with sharing the outputs across local government
  • Access to GDS user research labs if appropriate to help keep costs manageable and provide a conducive environment.