Can we close the gap between recycling intentions and reality?

Sensemaking / Can we close the gap between recycling intentions and reality?

There’s a ‘black hole’ between consumers’ good intentions to recycle, and what we actually recycle in our homes. But what has created this gap and just how do we close it, asks Joe Franses, Director, Corporate Responsibility & Sustainability, Coca-Cola Enterprises.

By Futures Centre / 19 May 2014

Recycling is arguably one of the easier ways to contribute to protecting the environment. However, while three-quarters of British and French consumers [76% and 75% respectively according to YouGov, February 2013] say they always recycle plastic bottles at home, recycling rates in these countries still fall short, with only around half of all plastic bottles returned for recycling.

Addressing this ‘black hole’, and transforming consumer recycling behaviour over the long-term, has been something that we have been exploring at Coca-Cola Enterprises, and recently concluded a six-month ground-breaking study with the University of Exeter called ‘Unpacking the Household’.

The pioneering study went beyond just asking people about their behaviour, entering their homes to observe real-life recycling behaviours of 20 households in Great Britain and France. Our aim was to understand the barriers to at-home recycling.

Interestingly, the research revealed that recycling is often not a conscious decision but an instinctive routine built into our everyday lives – in other words, an unconscious habit; sometimes, those habits aren’t the best recycling behaviour. However, our research found existing habits can be broken and new ones created, by intervening when householders are most open to change, such as when they are moving house or designing a new kitchen. Industry, recycling organisations and NGOs can help by working together to establish new, acceptable routines for households.

Among other findings, the study also found that space, systems and technologies that surround households determine how they manage waste. We found that householders often aren’t willing to compromise aesthetics in their homes to make room for recycling bins. This presents an opportunity for innovation in our living spaces – to ensure that recycling can be fully incorporated into day-to-day life in the home, alongside other functions such as cooking or cleaning.

“We rely on consumers to recycle, and they rely on us to innovate”

As a manufacturer and producer of 12 billion bottles and cans every year, we know we have a responsibility to better understand recycling behaviours at home. In fact, we’ve invested €12.5 million in two recycling joint ventures in Great Britain and France in recent years, to significantly increase the amount of PET plastic which can be reprocessed locally. To ensure these facilities don’t become under-utilised, we need to secure a pipeline of recycled bottles and boost sources of locally available high-quality recycled PET. In short, we rely on consumers to recycle, and they rely on us to innovate.

However, we know we can’t tackle this alone. Closing the gap between intentions and reality takes commitment and action from everyone. Businesses across the FMCG industry, recycling organisations, NGOs and consumers need to collaborate to bring out best practices and innovation from across a variety of different industries and geographies, to help change consumer behaviour.

It is vital these findings are shared to highlight the challenge that our industry faces, and equally, we are committed to finding solutions for everyone. This is why we have partnered with open innovation platform,, to launch an 11-week challenge aimed at sourcing ideas – no matter how big or small – that address ‘how to establish better recycling habits at home’.

The initiative, which taps into the’s 60,000 strong community from 130 countries, encourages some of the world’s most creative minds to share their stories and insight, and then submit ideas and collaborate to develop and refine solutions.

The ideas generated will be judged by an expert panel of our peers, recycling organisations, academics and NGOs on their originality, practicality and applicability in a real life situation. This includes P&G, the Ellen MacArthur Foundation and Casino.

Through this collaborative approach to innovation we hope to draw on the best ideas to make the recycling solutions of the future a reality today – plugging that ‘black hole’ once and for all.

Joe Franses is Director, Corporate Responsibility & Sustainability, Coca-Cola Enterprises.

To learn more about the research and challenge visit or you can sign up and take part by visiting Follow #recyclechallenge on Twitter for updates on the challenge.

Photo credit: Chris Clinton/Photodisk/Thinkstock

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