Why do households in the UK find recycling confusing and sometimes difficult to do?

Alison Dean, 15th October 2020

In our recent research on householders in England and the management of single use plastics in and out of the household, a comment we saw frequently was that it was all quite confusing.  Not only was there confusion over which plastics could be recycled but, at a more basic level, what items were made from and therefore whether they fitted the categories of recyclable plastics.  Although plastic items are frequently labelled with plastic resin codes (numbers 1-7 in a chasing arrows triangle) this does not necessarily mean the item can be recycled, nor does the use of the on-packaging recycling label (a circular arrow against a green background).  This is in part because within the UK what is recycled and how it is collected from the household varies not just between the nations but from local authority to local authority. 

Photo by Lisa Fotios on

In the UK, each local authority publishes details what can be recycled via kerbside collection and what can recycled at local recycling points. Furthermore “there is no universal rule on recycling bin colours” (Barnes, 2019) so for example, while many local authorities will use a blue lidded bin for paper, some, including Canterbury, use a red lidded bin.  In some parts of the country a brown bin is used for mixed recyclables, in others it is blue, and what can be mixed differs.  The frequency of collection of the different bins also varies; some collections are weekly, some fortnightly and which bins go out together can also vary.  Confused?  So are householders!  And woe betide anyone who offers to help put the recycling out when visiting relations – for often such offers are met with “Nooo! Not that bin!”  

In the UK, there is not a single cross-UK approach.  While there are overarching waste strategies for each of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, how waste, including recycling, is managed is left to local authorities to decide and implement.  It is also subject to local budget constraints, imposed in part by central government.  These differences in waste and recycling management impact household engagement.  They reduce the clarity and consistency of what is required and make knowledge transfer across households, other than in a localised area, less valuable.  Similarly, if UK householders played a more central role in the design of the recycling implementation process, the information provided to households could better reflect and make use of the day-to-day recycling experience of those households and their constituent householders. 

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