Saturday, 3 March 2012
Take our latest council leaflet for instance. I was delighted to discover a copy in my youngest son's book bag, which had been distributed through his primary school. Not only was this a great way of reaching local families, but it's the first time I've seen a visual representation of what can go in our kerbside recycling bin.
Personally, I think this is a much better method of communication, because there is less onus on the resident to interpret and second-guess what would otherwise be a sheet full of lengthy descriptions and instructions.
However, even when photos are used as illustrations, there is risk of ambiguity, often brought about by what's missing. For example, in our borough, like much of the UK, we can recycle detergent bottles and shampoo bottles, but the photo used in the leaflet only shows drinks bottles and a clear washing up liquid bottle. I can now imagine the conversations over the bins, with residents pondering if they can recycling their bottles of Domestos or Head & Shoulders, because they don't match the bottles in the picture.
Plastics is probably the hardest area of recycling about which to communicate to households. Only last week, someone else I know reported back on a very confusing email conversation she'd had with her council over the types of plastics she could recycle. She wanted to know which polymer numbers, she could add, but like most local authorities, the council spoke of the categories of containers they could accept.
And I empathise with both sides. For example, many councils are still restricted in their recycling by the type of packaging. They may be able to collect plastic drinks bottles (made from polymer type 1 - PET) but it doesn't mean they can also collect fruit punnets or meat trays made from the same material (due to limitations on sorting technologies that are programmed to only capture materials in a bottle shape). Consequently for such a council to tell a resident that they can accept Type 1 plastics would be wrong.
And if a council can't take yoghurt pots, there'll be no room for argument, no matter whether such a restriction is due to the polymer used or the shape of the packaging,
However many residents do hanker after more information and I think there is scope for councils to use polymer numbers in communications to reduce householder ambiguity where it helps, even if this is restricted to their website, where there is greater opportunity to outline more detailed information about their local recycling policy. After all, the packaging industry marks its goods with a polymer number, and if that information can be used in the right way, it would help many residents better understand the recycling opportunities as well as the restrictions that are in place.
At the moment, the only other information that a householder has to rely on is the On-Pack Recycling Label, which despite being a great call-to-action, doesn't respond to the amibiguity issue at all. Shoppers still have to rely on local authority communications to know what can actually be recycled in their bins and further afield at their Household Waste Recycling Centre.
It really does illiustrate that even at a local level, residents have different information requirements and the whole nature of recycling communications needs to be tackled in the same way as any other marketing campaign, through market segmentation and targeted messages to reach different levels of interest, commitment and understanding.
And on that note, wouldn't it be great if each local council could release its own online guide, to advise residents on how best to aim for Zero Waste or get as close as possible with the facilities available. But that takes communication to a whole different level, moving from information to motivation.
And developing motivation techniques is a whole different area indeed.