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Inside the Head of the ‘Recycling Contaminator’

By March 8, 2021June 7th, 2023No Comments
© Photo by Patricia Valerio

Do you consider yourself a committed recycler? Chances are you may need to brush up on your recycling skills. Research suggests that emotions can be the reason why we’re not always getting our recycling right.

In a novel report the Centre for Social Innovation by Keep Britain Tidy, uncovered some unique insights into the underlying behavioural drivers of recycling contamination.

Recycling contamination refers to the act of placing packaging or used products in the recycling bin which do not belong there, such as nappies, unwanted clothing or batteries. Contamination also happens when recyclables are too dirty to recycle, such as partially empty peanut butters jars and yoghurt pots.

Contamination can become a financial burden for councils, due to costs associated with additional sorting, damage to recycling equipment and quality reduction of other recyclables. For proper recycling to occur, all recyclables must be sorted and cleaned.

While the report confirmed that conflicting information in the media and confusion around packaging labels were a large part of the problem, our emotions may also be leading us astray. 

Some of the most avid recyclers were the worst offenders of contamination. By following their own ‘rules of thumb’, many were getting it wrong without even realizing. Amongst this committed group, guilt was a key driver behind contamination behaviours. The unease which people felt about the amount of waste their households produced meant that when in doubt about the recyclability of a used product or packaging –  it was placed in the recycling bin in the hope that it would eventually get a second life.

The report demonstrates that when it comes to issues such as recycling contamination, the behaviours which drive it can go beyond a lack of knowledge about what and how to recycle. We may want to live in a less wasteful society, but our current practices and behaviours can hinder us in achieving that goal.

Inside the Head of the Contaminator – Research Report September 2020 [PDF]