Why it’s so hard to get recycling right?

Old patterns of behavioural change and a lack of consistent guidelines could be behind household recycling rates stagnating, writes Jenni Downes, Research Consultant at the Institute for Sustainable Futures.

Kerbside recycling has existed in Australia for more than 35 years, and over that time councils have invested serious effort to increase recycling rates and decrease contamination. The majority of Australia’s population now have access to kerbside recycling: in the 2012 census, 94 per cent of households reported participating in some way in kerbside recycling.

However, Australia’s average recovery rate has been hovering between 50-60 per cent for the past 10 years, and municipal rates are generally lower than this. The latest public data indicates that total municipal recovery rates are less than 20 per cent in Tasmania and the Northern Territory, 30-50 per cent in Queensland, Western Australia and Victoria, and 50-55 per cent in New South Wales and South Australia. Australian Capital Territory is the exception with a municipal recovery rate of more than 70 per cent.

So why is it so hard for households (and councils) to get kerbside recycling right?


The first reason is that people find recycling confusing. According to Planet Ark, 48 per cent of Australians report confusion about what can and can’t be recycled, and 73 per cent of Australians said that they would recycle more if it were easier. This confusion is likely the result of four things:

what is recyclable has changed over the 35 years since kerbside recycling was first introduced

what is recyclable through kerbside is different depending on where you live

how you recycle at home is different to recycling at work and in public spaces

more household products are combinations or composites of different materials

The good news is that what can be recycled through kerbside is becoming more consistent across councils: data from shows that more than 80 per cent of the Australian population can now place all common kerbside recyclable items in their recycling bin. Further, Planet Ark and the Australian Packaging Covenant are working on recycling labels to be placed on products and packaging to guide households in how to recycle materials through kerbside and other systems.

However, a recent move in public spaces, such as the City of Sydney, to provide a single bin for all rubbish and recycling, sorted and recovered through alternative waste treatment is confusing and frustrating recycling efforts. Despite communicating that these bins are sorted for recycling, Planet Ark’s survey found that 74 per cent of Australians feel frustrated when they do not have access to a recycling bin when they are out and about.

Old patterns 

Traditional models of behaviour change suggest that behaviour is a linear result of attitude, intention and behaviour. This suggests that providing information on why and how to undertake a particular new behaviour should motivate people to switch to desired behaviour. But recent research (i) has revealed a consistently strong “intention-behaviour gap” for pro-environmental behaviour, indicating that despite strong intentions, people often don’t switch to desired behaviours, and therefore the simple provision of informative and motivating recycling messages rarely results in the desired change.

New evidence is emerging from the behavioural economics field (ii) that suggests, particularly for habitual behaviours like recycling, more targeted approaches are needed to change behaviour.

Data issues 

One of the greatest problems in measuring our success or failure with waste management is the lack of consistent data collection methods. In Australia, unlike many other developed nations, we don’t have a reliable or up to date national recycling figure. There can also be vast differences in the recycling systems used and the methods of measuring waste and recycling rates, from one state to another.

Comprehensive data on municipal waste management and recycling are not available for most jurisdictions. New South Wales and Victoria publish annual data on waste tonnages diverted and landfilled by local councils, as well as collection services, frequencies and bin types. More limited data is available for local governments in Queensland, Western Australia and South Australia.

Further, the cost of experimental designs and rigorous bin audits for testing recycling education approaches is beyond the budgets of many waste coordinators, meaning that information and education activities are often carried out without quantifying the effects that these activities are having on recycling rates and contamination. 

What can councils do?

The best first step is for councils to continue to move as much as possible towards nationally consistent kerbside collection services and communication, aligned with national recycling label criteria.

Communication with households should reflect the consistent criteria underlying the national label, or be explicit about where and why the council is different from national guidelines.

The next step is to move towards evidence-based interventions and education. Councils can partner with state government funding agencies and research institutions to rigorously evaluate interventions and activities and establish a strong evidence base for effective education activities. Councils can then share this evidence and lessons learnt through regional waste groups. State governments can support this by conducting meta-evaluations of council activities, assessing the outcomes and impacts of from different approaches.

A big step would be to reassess the balance between financial and environmental performance of recycling systems, and reinvestigate source separated recycling. Commingled recycling reduces upfront waste management costs of councils. It is also often thought to make it easier for households, and therefore increase participation rates. The majority of councils in metropolitan areas now collect commingled recycling. Conversely, research in NSW and UK (iii) consistently finds that when compared to commingled recycling, source-separated recycling with separate bins for paper vs containers results in higher recovery (approximately) 320kg vs 240kg pa) and decreased contamination (7 per cent vs 17 per cent). The NSW research concluded it is considered the best performing system, particularly when combined with alternative waste treatment for residual waste.


(i) Mind the Gap: Why do people act environmentally and what are the barriers to pro environmental behavior?:

Why We Don’t “Walk the Talk”: Understanding the Environmental Values/Behaviour Gap:

(ii) Lessons learned from interventions and evaluations:$file/behaviour_review_interventions.pdf

Household energy use: Applying behavioural economics to understand consumer decision making and behaviour:

(iii) NSW Assessment of domestic waste and recycling systems:

UK FoE Policy Brief Recycling Collections:

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