We are still a long way behind in terms of recycling. And industry and commerce are to blame. So how can we turn brands and companies from culprits to heroes?
Following our theme of the month, Domestica, we now immerse ourselves in the challenging habit of recycling within our households: the big shifts and challenges ahead, and what’s in it for industries and brands.
Whilst industry and commerce is still responsible for the largest proportion of waste, this is changing fast, and they are keeping good track of their clean waste management. Mostly as a consequence of strict regulations from governments, as well as wanting public recognition for being green. Decision makers within companies, however, tend to focus on recycling at a company level, neglecting homes, where the consumption of their goods mostly takes place, and where levels of recycling still lags behind.
In the UK, each household is responsible for more than 1 tonne of waste per year, the equivalent of a small car. On average, each person in the UK throws away their own body weight in rubbish every 7 weeks. Less than half is reused and recycled.
We all intuitively know the relevance and importance of recycling. It is not, in fact, a novel thing: recycling habits have been around since nomadic tribes began to settle. We used to be quite good at it. We reused stuff multiple times before discarding it. There wasn’t such a thing as buying the new version of something if the current one wasn’t yet used up. We used every part of an animal when hunted. Our children played with the same toys their entire childhood – and their children’s childhood too. Things were cherished.
But not anymore. Up to 60% of the waste that currently goes into the bin in the UK can be recycled. And we throw away between £250 and £400 of edible food every year. Noticing the issue, local governments started helping us in the process, taking responsibility for recycling away from us. This decision doesn’t come cheap: the energy, labor and machinery necessary to recycle materials is roughly double the amount needed to simply landfill them. Governments and organisations have also been investing millions in campaigns to convince households to carry out their recycling duties.
So what has changed? Why don’t we feel personally or morally responsible for recycling as much as we used to?
Not so long ago, we used to take an active role and full responsibility in the production and consumption of things in our own houses. We had control over the local provenance of the things we buy, we even had a habit of building furniture and making objects ourselves. We had the habit of sowing and reinventing our own clothes to wear, our local markets let us portion control the exact amount of food we bring home without unnecessary layers of packaging.
Unsurprisingly, this meant that we also naturally felt more responsibility of the waste created. We used to find versatile ways to reuse old materials, leftovers were used as compost for plants, or food for pets and husbandry. The objects we used to own were durable possessions, and lasted a lifetime.
All of a sudden, the rapid growth of urban living has moved this responsibility from the consumers to the industries and states, creating a complex, globalised and automated system of production, consumption and waste that distanced us from the things we consume. Rather than having an active part in the process, suddenly we turned into a small cog on the large machinery of production and waste.
This created a strong sense of detachment over things. We lost empathy and connection with them. The very word ‘consumption’ that comes from this industrial shift says it all: we stopped owning things, and start devouring and discharging them instead.
We buy clothes from sweatshops in Bangladesh, avocados from deforested areas in Mexico, or electronics from factories that infringe human rights in China without question. Being out of the loop makes us feel less responsible over our own decisions.
In the same way, this also extends to the feeling that our job is done once bin bags carrying the evidence of our crime are out of the door. Giving responsibility to the state to get rid of waste does give a centralised and professional control over recycling, but at the same time it leaves us completely off the hook and guilt-free: if we don’t recycle, or do it incorrectly, it is not our own fault: but the fault of the manufacturers, who didn’t develop products that can last long, and are recyclable, or our council, who did not create an easy system of collection within our own community.
Industries, therefore, are partly complicit in our disconnect towards waste. So the question that remains is: could they turn the table and help us connect back to our rubbish, and make the responsibility of recycling more personal? Here are some ideas:
Put value on waste: Putting a tag on our rubbish means people feel empowered to reduce and recycle waste. Some states in the US are testing a ‘pay-as-you-throw’ model, which puts people in control of their waste management taxes, and empowers them to save money, and has already seen households reducing their level of waste by 17%. Retailers have seen the impact as well. England’s use of plastic bags dropped 85% since they started charging 5p some months ago. To go a step further, retailers can consider offering discounted prices for getting rid of packaging before leaving store, for example. The same is true for tech companies, who can give discounts in exchange for their older devices, or help resell for their customer.
Mindful production, mindful waste: As consumers are more aware of the products and brands they buy, they are more consciously responsible to contribute to the chain of production and waste of that particular type of goods. A proof of this is that mindful vegans who are conscious about the provenance of what they buy tend to recycle more than their omnivorous counterparts. Brands that are transparent with the production of their goods are likely to inspire their consumers to be mindful of how to keep the chain of responsible living going beyond their homes.
- Have less, to throw less: The best way to manage rubbish is by producing less of it in the first place. Brands can bring novel solutions to make products more durable, and reusable. For example, fresh new band models keeps the Apple Watch cool at every season, Tesla cars update their software automatically, giving drivers a whole new car at every reboot.
Nudge with positive incentive and negative threat: We are hardwired to cooperate more when there is a negative ‘fox’ running at us or a positive ‘carrot’ pushing us forward. When it comes to recycling, some initiatives work well with nudging us with good levels of threat and reward. Taiwan, for example, has emerged as a poster child for recycling with this in mind. They rely on a comprehensive strategy that harnesses its famously fun musical garbage trucks, with mobile apps that alert users to nearby truck stops, along with pay-as-you-go trash bags. Brands can get inspired by these approaches, thinking of ways of turning the process smoother and intuitive for people. What about a recycling-track gaming app that entices our competitive spirit amongst our neighbours?
- So, what can brands learn from this?
- The opportunity for manufacturers and retailers to recycle must go beyond keeping track of their own green methods. Our own recycling habits are also in urgent need of intervention on a behavioural level.
- Just as our responsibility of recycling in a household shouldn’t end once bin bags are out of the door, industries should play a role in the responsibility of recycling their products long after those leave their factory or stores. Manufacturers who first learn how to do this well will then be able to create a new and unexplored league in terms of consumers’ level of perception of what is to be a truly ‘green’ brand.