Constraints on Recycling

While people generally think that more people in London should recycle, most survey participants have deep-seated beliefs why they personally could, or should not, do more. Myths about dumping of materials collected for recycling undermine some people's psychological commitment. A significant minority also believes that the local Council does not recycle all the materials that it asks for. Indeed, many people feel that their own recycling efforts are not matched by Councils 'doing their bit'.

For many people, environmental motivations to recycle are irrelevant. The reason that they do not recycle is that they simply do not think about it, or do not consider it of sufficient importance to justify the effort involved. Low and non-recyclers were most likely to hold these views. High recyclers find it easiest to fit recycling into everyday routines - but these are also the households most likely to have kerbside collection services, and they have feelings of moral responsibility about waste. Aspects of recycling that are felt to be 'too difficult' by a sizeable minority are storing recyclables and making special trips to bring banks. These constraints appear greatest for low and non-recyclers, who are most likely to live in flats and have to walk to bring sites.

Even self-declared committed recyclers, however, may be put off by the clutter and untidiness caused around the home by storing recyclables, as well as the time commitment involved in making special trips to bring sites. The way in which waste services are delivered communicates important messages, which affects individuals' commitment to participate in recycling. Knowledge about what to do is typically absorbed from what is visible in the local area, either through kerbside schemes or nearby bring banks. Many people do not think about recycling unless it is brought to their attention and very few actively seek out information on recycling services. Equally, the way in which recyclables are apparently managed sends important messages to ordinary people about the commitment of the local Council to recycling. Commonly expressed deterrents were overflowing bring banks and lack of evident separation on kerbside collections.

In general, the survey and group discussions suggest that Londoners' commitment to recycling is fragile. Very few people reject the recycling message outright and most people are aware, if only vaguely, that more needs to be done. However, recycling is a low priority for most households and is done most conscientiously where participation is made easy.

The research explored what ordinary people think can be done to reduce the amount of waste created, via a series of discussions about how people cook, and shop, and how they feel about packaging. Attitudes were also tested in the household survey. Product choice is dominated by perceptions of quality and cost - and is influenced by the fact that almost all households rely on supermarkets for their main food shop. As a result, special offers are influential and many people admit to buying more than they need because of offers.

People whose shopping habits are influenced by environmental concerns are in a minority, though a few take useful 'small steps' such as buying refills or choosing glass over plastic containers occasionally. Given households' generally low environmental motivation regarding shopping, it is not surprising that packaging is not an important issue for most people. The majority believes that packaging is impossible to avoid, principally because their eating, cooking and food shopping habits are largely fixed, and organised to deliver maximum convenience. Some high recyclers feel that consuming heavy packaging is acceptable so long as it can be recycled. Although people feel they cannot avoid packaging, many are nonetheless irritated by the amount of packaging of supermarket products. For some their irritation is related to environmental concerns; for others it is a belief that packaging deceives consumers about the products inside.

Re-use of products, including supermarket plastic bags, is minimal and not an issue in most households. Some parents donate (questionable quantities) of packaging to their child's school; most people claimed to pass on old clothes either to family or charity shops. In general, people in London do not feel that producing less waste is their responsibility, nor an issue over which they have any influence. Reduction of packaging is seen by most people as a job for retailers and manufacturers, who should be persuaded by regulation if necessary.

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