In October 2018, Leeds City Council bravely allowed Hubbub the opportunity to run experimental recycling campaigns in the heart of the city. With funding provided by EcoSurety and a partnership of major companies we tested a range of different approaches and commissioned an independent agency to measure impact. A year after the campaign was launched we can share results.

There are now 186 new recycling points collecting cans, plastics and coffee cups in the centre of Leeds. The number of people who say they are recycling their food and drink packaging within the city has increased from 17% to 49%.  In the first twelve months, a total of 1.2 million coffee cups, 160,000 plastic bottles and 140,000 cans have been recycled. All bottles, cans and cups collected were recycled in the North of England. The full evaluation report can be read here.

What then have been the main conclusions?

1) Collaboration is key  to raising awareness  when introducing recycling

The campaign was  a unique combination of corporate partners, a local authority, the waste industry and local organisations in Leeds. This allowed  various partners  to input expertise, facilitate the various interventions and amplify key messages, as opposed to  all of  the onus being on the local authority to tackle this issue alone.  Under half of local authorities provide recycling on-the-go, as it’s not been cost-effective for them to collect poor quality material.

2) Consistent communications are  crucial 

People are confused about recycling and they spend under two seconds  at a bin. We  aimed for clear, bold and consistent communications  from the point of purchase to the point of disposal. This  led to almost a threefold increase in people recycling their food and drink packaging. Awareness of recycling in Leeds City Centre increased from 23% to 54% and of those,  85% of the people in Leeds City Centre  remembered seeing the campaign. 

3) Quality of recycling can vary  and  is affected by  bin positioning

Quality is generally lower in  high footfall areas  and during holiday periods, especially when people are new to recycling infrastructure and communications.  The most effective recycling bins were positioned where the public had more time to take in messaging and communications, demonstrating the importance of bin positioning.  All plastic/ can recycling quality improved over time. 

4) Recycle reward machines are popular with the public

The machines are expensive but popular, especially in closed-loop, managed spaces with high footfall where people  buy,  consume and dispose of food and drink packaging, and when rewards can be redeemed cumulatively or with a student audience. They collect higher quality material than on-street, but some indoor bins performed just as well.

5) Cup collections are important

1.2 million cups were collected during the trial.  In general, cup collection yields higher quality in managed spaces, although they also work well in high footfall areas such as around transport hubs.  Contamination was highest in cup bins, but the number of cup lids disposed in cup bins reduced and the number of people saying that they recycled their cup increased from 14% to 51%. Coffee cups continued to be a major contaminant in plastic  and  can recycling bins, demonstrating the need to provide cup collection facilities  and to further educate the public about cup recycling.  

6) Make recycling simple, visual and fun 

The trial showed that the public respond to playfulness, bold messaging and interventions that visualise the issue and make a banal subject fun.  They also want recycling to be convenient and say they will recycle if a recycling bin is nearby. These were more effective than incentives.  Quality and quantity of recycling improved over time, showing that behaviour change takes time to embed, as people make recycling a habit.

7) Consistent monitoring

To-date there has been limited comparable research to measure the effectiveness of  on-the-go  recycling.  Leeds By Example provides some robust insight on this issue and was able to demonstrate it performed better than other recycling on-the-go schemes based on research done by WRAP. Further data is needed to understand the impact of recycling in different locations and to establish a robust set of recommendations for other towns and cities.  

What happens next?

The results have been sufficiently encouraging for Leeds City Council to agree to take over the waste collections in collaboration with local partner Zero Waste Leeds. There will be on-going monitoring of the scheme so that lessons can continue to be learned and shared. The Leeds By Example name has organically grown to widely represent environmental sustainability issues in Leeds.

The success of the campaign has generated sufficient private sector funding to expand the most successful elements to Swansea and Edinburgh. These campaigns will operate under the ‘In the Loop’ banner and will generate more impact and findings.  A third development city has been agreed and will be announced early next year.

In 2020, Hubbub’s ambition is to expand the campaign to more diverse locations generating additional learning that will inform the development of the UK’s recycling policies.

We will aim to build closer links with the Government’s evolving Resources and Waste strategy. Once this strategy comes into fruition there will be considerable additional resources to support recycling campaigns within the UK and our hope is that the campaigns we have developed will help ensure that this funding can be used to build on tested approaches, proven communications and a growing level of infrastructure.