Recycling and The Circular Economy

How does recycling everything become the norm? By radically changing the attitudes of both the general public and businesses

While change is inevitable, it can also be difficult. Those who don’t embrace it can feel they are fighting against the wishes of their customers and even their own employees. So how do we make it easier?

Firstly, by recognising that every behavioural change must be for a reason, otherwise it’ll fall flat on its face. We took this ideology into our industry with the aim of improving recycling rates by changing how the public recycles. Behavioural change is achieved through transparency that unites all the stakeholders.

The story so far…

The majority of UK households have recycled at home for 80 years, separating their waste with the expectation that at least some will be recycled. The demands of WW2 initially mobilised the population to save whatever could be used for the war effort, while the rise of consumerism in the 1960s heightened the need for widespread recycling as cardboard and glass waste doubled over that decade. The rise of an American phenomenon – the supermarket – meant all products had to be packaged against handling.

And so, 80 years on, while most families now accept recycling as part of their routine, recent controversy over how that kerbside recycling is handled by local authorities has reduced public confidence in recycling schemes. The BBC’s War on Plastic series recently discovered attempts to illegally recycle British waste abroad. When individuals have bought into the idea of changing their behaviour, discovering these efforts have been wasted is disastrous. Therefore, I believe one of the many challenges we face is to restore confidence that recycling is making a difference.


What happens to recycling efforts when we are ‘on-the-go,’ spending more and more free time eating and drinking outside our homes? The UK is not as well versed in on-the-go recycling as it is for the home. In fact, it’s extremely bad at it.

It’s shocking to learn that 700,000 plastic bottles are thrown away every day in the UK – that’s 1.97 per cent of the 13bn plastic bottles used by the country annually. Yet there is currently little or no financial incentive for consumers to recycle this plastic and a Deposit Return Scheme (DRS) is only expected to start in 2020, initially rolled out in Scotland.

From the recycling sector’s perspective, it’s clear that citizens perceive ‘at home’ recycling as the norm but rarely think about the on-the-go problem. Why? Quite simply, people are in a ‘rush-zone’ when they’re out, so focused on catching a train or getting to a meeting that they consume whatever they need along the way. We can see this behaviour in statistics for the takeaway sector – a rapidly growing UK industry worth £17.4bn in 2017. But as this sector grows, so too must effort to recycle the waste its on-the-go consumers generate.

As a business, we want to shake things up by making recycling out of the home a common practice. But to achieve this, everybody needs to buy in. Expecting that changing consumer behaviour will solve the problem is simply myopic. In order for the world to combat climate change, all businesses must analyse how they operate and change for the better.

Circular economies

We believe that the solution is to create a circular economy by achieving substantial improvements in product and service resource utilisation. We are aware of the increasing depletion of our natural resources and the changes in climate seen across the globe. According to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, “Companies harvest and extract materials, use them to manufacture a product, and sell the product to a consumer – who then discards it.” Analysis has shown that 65bn tonnes of raw materials entered the economic system in 2010, a figure that is expected to grow to about 82bn tonnes by 2020.

Now is therefore the right time to adopt a circular economy approach and reap the benefits but in order for it to work, all stakeholders must be aligned. We are aware that companies are very successful with new product launches, but do they take responsibility when these products come to the end of their useful lives? Brands such as Kwik Fit offer to take their customers’ worn-out tyres, which are then turned into chips for soft play areas. Every business in every sector needs to take a similar approach by investing in end-of-life R&D for their own products.

Circular economy adoption also needs to include the use of renewable energy as part of the manufacturing process. Equally, elimination of toxic chemicals in products contributes to the circular economy approach. Brands such as The Body Shop have led the way, improving both human life and the environment with reduced-toxicity packaging which requires less intrusive recycling.

Stakeholder engagement

Businesses must ask how they can work better and more collaboratively with stakeholders, but only after identifying who their stakeholders actually are. Unity of stakeholder engagement is the approach we have taken to achieve a circular economy model. Our business has joined up with a waste-to-electricity plant, with a view to making our own plants as sustainable as possible. We intend to take plastic products that have reached the end of their lives and generate new polymers, hydrogen and electricity from them. We will run this plant entirely from electricity derived from waste. This will be a plastics plant run off waste plastic, a recycling facility creating new products and services from a single end-of-cycle product stream. Such a plastic recycling plant that unites all stakeholders to better use a resource is, we believe, an example of a truly circular economy.

Consumers are also key stakeholders, especially when it comes to on-the-go recycling. Therefore, we intend to introduce a reward solution called Recycle Exchange to change consumer behaviour and ensure a cyclical flow. We are creating an advanced form of Deposit Return Scheme in which consumers use an app to access recycling pods, claim monetary rewards and have the opportunity to donate to a local charity of their choice.

We aim to focus on homeless charities and intend for homeless people to have access to pods where they can deposit plastic and reclaim a meal or a night at a homeless shelter. We aim to then recycle 100 per cent of the deposits (PET – the most ubiquitous of plastics) at our first recycling plant in the North West of England. We will be creating polymers to be reused by manufacturers, powering the plant with waste material and using our reward solution to improve the utilisation and efficiency of PET material. All of society can take responsibility and all efforts are rewarded.

Changing behaviours

Consumer change is key and, thanks to the ‘Blue Planet effect,’ the public is well aware of the threat of climate change. But this awareness needs to be translated into action and the way consumers view plastic. It can no longer be seen as single use waste. Indeed, through the circular economy, we believe plastic’s life is never ending. Consumers must be reprogrammed to view plastic as valuable and to realise that waste does not exist. There is no end life to products – everything we have must be recyclable. If we can get consumers to believe this, then we are one step closer to changing attitudes towards on-the-go recycling. Once rubbish bins are viewed as hoppers for recycling and people understand the value of plastic, recycling will become a social norm.

So how can we go about changing behaviour? We can look to the successes of the Behavioural Insights Team (BIT), the Government’s ‘nudge unit’ that’s now co-owned by its employees, the Cabinet Office and the innovation charity, Nesta. BIT has had numerous successes, including reducing NHS waiting times by 38 per cent with a reduction in patient referrals to overbooked hospitals, which resulted from installing a pop-up prompt in GPs’ referral systems.

It also achieved a 37 per cent rise in tax declaration rates following text message reminders to 750,000 businesses in Mexico. This built on early work in the UK, where reminders about self-assessment brought forward £200m in tax revenue in a single year.

For an example of changing recycling behaviour, look at when the wheelie bin was first introduced to the UK in the 1980s, immediately doubling the recycling rate. If we transfer the idea to on-the-go recycling and give consumers a genuine opportunity to recycle – a competitive Recycle and Reward solution along with a circular economy – then we can truly change how the UK recycles. Changing the mindset to a more circular-focused perspective is not only the right thing to do but it can also be good for business. That’s something all business owners must wake up to.