UK recycling lags behind European neighbours: experts say better education is key

A suburb of London in the morning sun.

As a new study reveals that most UK households are confused about what they can recycle and where, the waste management experts at Whitespace offer insights into what can be done to improve education and increase sustainable behaviours.

  • Official statistics show the UK recycles just 44% of municipal waste, compared to 67% in Germany, 56% in Switzerland and 53% in the Netherlands
  • A recent study revealed that many UK adults don’t understand how recycling schemes work

In an age where sustainability and protecting our environment has become paramount, the UK is still lagging behind its European neighbours when it comes to recycling. But why is this?

A recent study may have the answer: people don’t fully understand recycling. The study, which was carried out by Hi-Cone, a company specialising in ring carrier packaging for beer, found that only a quarter of the people surveyed are aware of what the term ‘circular economy’ means.

For the remaining three-quarters of Brits, this means there’s confusion about what should and shouldn’t be recycled. The result? Contaminated refuse and recyclable materials being sent to the wrong place.

Hi-Cone’s findings show that there’s an obvious need to offer more guidance to the general public who’re wanting to do their bit, but are unsure about how to do it.

“If local authorities can find interesting, inventive ways to educate people on the recycling process, it will promote higher participation and push the UK further up Europe’s eco-friendly behaviour ranks” says Mark Garvey , CEO at Whitespace. “The more creative councils can be, the better chance they have of getting residents participating in regional recycling initiatives.”

Whitespace recommends simple educational tactics, encouraging proper recycling practices through things like:

  • Putting stickers on incorrectly sorted rubbish
  • Giving families vouchers for significantly reducing their household waste
  • Additional marketing, such as flyer handouts and media advertisements
  • Downloading their resident app to ensure recycling collections aren’t missed

“The most successful campaigns combine education and fun.” Garvey goes on to say. “A novelty idea engages households, but the serious underlying message promotes long-term, sustainable behaviour changes.” Well thought-out initiatives can capture people’s imaginations and, subsequently, the UK’s recycling reputation can improve.

Martin is a journalist and PR executive of Commercial Waste Magazine. He has worked in the commercial waste and recycling industry for over a decade and is dedicated to raising public awareness in the amount of recyclable waste being sent to landfill every year.

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