New research sheds light on ‘at home’ recycling habits

Sensemaking / New research sheds light on ‘at home’ recycling habits

A six-month long study carried out by Coca-Cola Enterprises and the University of Exeter reveals the barriers to increasing recycling rates – and possible solutions for overcoming them.

By Duncan Jefferies / 02 Apr 2014

What stops people from recycling at home? Is it confusion about what can and can't be recycled? Is it a lack of motivation? Or perhaps they don't believe that the items will be properly recycled once they’ve been collected?

Whatever the reason, it’s fair to say that a considerable number of plastic bottles never make it into the recycling bin – despite people’s best intentions. Around 75% of French and 76% of British consumers claim that they "always" recycle plastic bottles, and 63% across both countries claim to view recycling as "a moral and environmental duty", according to research carried out by YouGov. Yet only half of all plastic bottles are currently collected for recycling.

A recent study by Coca-Cola Enterprises (CCE) and the University of Exeter aims to get to the roots of this disparity, and provide recommendations on how it can be addressed. ‘Unpacking the Household’, led by Dr Stewart Barr, a Senior Lecturer in Human Geography and Director of the MSc in Sustainable Development at the University of Exeter, observed the recycling habits of twenty families in Great Britain and France over a six month period. The results show that:

  • People don’t make conscious decisions about recycling. Instead, they act in an instinctive way, based on familiar habits and behaviours, which don’t always include recycling.
  • The recycling infrastructure in some households needs to be adjusted. Additional space can help to make it a more viable activity, but aesthetical concerns can prevent this from happening; few participants in the study were willing to make room for a recycling bin.
  • Better information is needed, given that the majority of households do not have an accurate understanding of what happens to their waste once it is collected. Many do not realise that items they recycle are returned to them as other products or packaging.
  • Common misconceptions continue to exist, with many households still skeptical that products they place in the recycling bin are actually recycled once collected. There is a widely held belief that it is ‘sent to landfill’ or ‘exported abroad’.

These are big challenges that can only be addressed through fresh thinking and collaborative efforts, something CCE and, an online platform for social good, have recognised. Their recycling challenge began on the 31 March 2014. Over the course of 11 weeks,’s global community of 60,000 innovators will be encouraged to come up with solutions that could encourage people to recycle more – and the ‘Unpacking the Household’ study provides some good recommendations on where to start.  

Firstly, it’s important to intervene at moments when households are most open to change – for instance, when they move house or install a new kitchen. During these periods, brand owners, manufacturers and designers have a golden opportunity to speak to householders and influence their future recycling habits. The study notes that digital communication can be a powerful tool for achieving this, and that people are more likely to form new recycling habits when their actions are perceived as having a positive community impact.

Once communication channels have been opened, coalitions of brands, manufacturers designers and other organisations should work together to educate people on ‘what things become’ once they’ve been recycled. This helps to demystify and demonstrate the value of recycling, which in turn leads to greater confidence in local collection systems, while giving people a better connection to the materials they consume and discard.

As the study notes, it’s particularly important to encourage teenagers to re-engage in recycling. Although many young children are keen to engage with recycling efforts, when they reach their teens many seem to switch off, and even ‘throw off’ the good habits they developed earlier in their lives. Finally, designers must work on more ‘at home’ recycling solutions that integrate into household spaces in an aesthetically pleasing way, and help to turn recycling into an everyday action.

All big challenges, but ones that’s members and CCE, as part of its ‘Recycle for the Future’ commitment to better understand and increase recycling rates at home, are keen to address. – Duncan Jefferies

Anyone interested in joining the recycling challenge can do so at, and follow updates on Twitter using the hashtag #recyclechallenge.

Photo credit: Flickr Timothy Takemoto

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