In numbers: the UK public’s attitudes towards recycling

Last September, consultancy Britain Thinks surveyed more than 2,000 UK adults on attitudes across a spectrum of questions relating to packaging, recycling and the circular economy. With the survey results released on Friday (28 September), edie rounds-up the key findings.

Undertaken by Britain Thinks and commissioned by waste management firm SUEZ, the online survey asked 2,057 British adults across all age groups, regions and social classes about their attitudes towards recycling and their awareness of the Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) scheme.

After a record number of members of the public responded to a UK Government consultation examining plastic waste, the survey sheds new light on what level of responsibility the general public feel that councils, the Government, retailers and manufacturers should take in driving the circular economy.

SUEZ has been campaigning for the Government to extend its existing Producer Responsibility Obligation (PRO) framework and raise the cost of Packaging Recovery Notes (PRNs) for some time now, and it appears the public agrees that all manufacturers should take more financial responsibility for what happens to products at the end-of-life stage.

“It’s clear from this new research that consumers want manufacturers to take more financial responsibility for the waste arising from the products and packaging they sell in the UK – and that the current regime is failing to deliver sustainability improvements for some items we all buy and discard every day,” SUEZ UK’s chief executive David Palmer-Jones said.

“Creating a well-functioning circular economy is not just the responsibility of manufacturers though. It will require the whole value chain – including retailers, councils, government, consumers, waste management companies and reprocessors – to come together to deliver an efficient, effective, joined-up system.”

Carried out alongside four public attitudes workshops by SUEZ, the survey acts as a snapshot on resource and waste efficiency drivers and challenges. Here, edie rounds up the key facts from Britain Thinks’ survey.

1) 84% want collection costs covered by business

In terms of EPR, 84% of survey respondents said they felt that manufacturers and retailers across all sectors should cover some of the cost associated with collecting and treating waste from the products they sell, with more than half (55%) arguing that manufacturers and retailers should cover 100% of the financial costs of dealing with their end-of-life products.

Similarly, around three-quarters of the workshop participants said that manufacturers should pay a deposit when they place products or packaging on the market. They would only have the deposit returned if a certain percentage of this output was recycled.

Britain’s current PRO scheme currently covers producers of packaging, batteries, vehicles and electrical goods, but it appears that the public would happily see this extended to all sectors.

However, SUEZ noted that where disposal responsibility lies is likely to be a “low-salience” issue with consumers, with more than three quarters (83%) telling Britain Thinks that they did not care which kind of organisation manages their waste.

2) 49% believe manufacturers and producers have a responsibility to improve packaging

Upon being told that PRN costs currently cover just 10-15% of the costs of collecting and sorting waste generated by consumers, with the remaining 90% of costs being incurred by business and taxpayers, consumers at the workshops told Britain Thinks that they felt packaging producers were “shirking” their responsibilities and “buying compliance”.

Similarly, when survey respondents were asked who the responsibility for making improvements to the sustainability of packaging and products should fall upon, almost half (49%) named manufacturers and producers.

However, workshop participants were also sceptical that any council cost-savings arising from a transfer of responsibility from councils to manufacturers would be passed on to taxpayers.

PRNs currently cost around €20 per tonne in the UK, while other European nations have an average cost of around €150 per tonne. 

3) 81% are satisfied with council recycling systems

As the debate around whether the UK should introduce one recycling system across all local authorities amid apparent customer confusion surrounding labelling rolls on, the survey found that 81% of respondents think their council’s current recycling system is “convenient”.

Despite more than nine in ten (93%) claiming that they tried to recycle or dispose of their waste in the correct way “as much as possible”, however, almost a quarter (23%) admitted to regularly throwing away recyclable products or packaging.

In order to combat this trend, Britain Thinks asked survey respondents how their recycling and waste disposal systems could be improved. The majority said that they wanted schemes not only to be convenient and efficient but “rewarding” as well. Some suggested that gamification or incentives from manufacturers – such loyalty card schemes – would encourage their household to recycle more.

4) 56% consider sustainability when purchasing products

With the recent string of public and business campaigns against plastic waste – from the Refill Me initiative to various “plastic attacks” in supermarkets – showing no sign of slowing down, you would be forgiven for thinking that packaging would be a top priority for consumers.

However, only half of the survey respondents said that considerations about how they would dispose of packaging were “very important” or “fairly important” when they were deciding what to buy. Similarly, 56% said that the environmental sustainability of a product was an important factor in their decision-making. More important factors were the quality of the product, its cost, how long it would last for and whether it was made by a “favourite” brand.

5) 67% would be swayed by ‘eco-labels’

Despite the fact that sustainability was not found to be a top consumer concern, the majority (67%) of survey respondents said they would be more likely to purchase brands that are more sustainable than those that are less sustainable, if they were offered products both with and without eco-labels.

However, two-thirds said they would only select the eco-label option if it was either the same price or cheaper than the non-labelled product. This suggests that increasing the cost of less sustainable products could have a greater impact on purchasing behaviour than labelling alone.

The results of the survey can be read in full here.


Sarah George

Comments (1)

  1. Dave Stanley says:

    A packaging tax of an extra 25% of the value of the product for every layer of packaging and or different material might grab the attention of producers – particularly in the food and drink sector.
    All drinks containers – 50p deposit.
    Watch the reduction.

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