Cycling: Lessons from Recycling

When I was at school in the 1990s I remember there was a lot being said about recycling, how it was important and how we should all make an effort to recycle our glass, paper and cans (there was little mention of recycling plastic at that stage). I distinctly remember that one month we were all encouraged to bring all of our family’s empty tins and cans into school, sorting them into separate steel and aluminium bins by testing them with a magnet. At the end of the month the bins were taken away, I remember being enthusiastic and wanting to continue recycling the cans but the only place to recycle them was through large bins at the supermarket car park, or at the borough tip. At the time we didn’t even have wheelie bins, we had several metal bins at the back of the house which were emptied by the bin men every week. There was no separate collection for different types of waste, the whole waste collection infrastructure was designed around the need to move all domestic waste to either landfill or incineration.

Recycling in the 1990s was possible, but it required individuals to think about their domestic waste and make the conscious effort to elect to take their waste to centralised recycling facilities. The more destructive option of not recycling waste which could have been recycled was the convenient and easy choice because it didn’t involve individuals to elect to change their behaviour. Most people didn’t particularly care about the issue of recycling and thought nothing of throwing all their domestic waste out in the same bin. Less than twenty years in 2011, almost everyone recycles the majority of their recyclable domestic waste.

Image courtesy of MEN

In 2011, do the majority of people care about the issue of recycling? The answer is still a resounding “No.” People recycle because it in 2011 it is easy and convenient for them to do so, so it is the natural choice. Rather than continuing to promote elective behavioural change to increase recycling rates, councils have changes the waste collection infrastructure to make recycling the natural and convenient option. Separate bin facilities are provided for different sorts of waste, often different categories of recyclable waste in addition to a general waste bin for non-recyclable material. For those choosing not to separate waste so it can be recycled, life is made inconvenient by a reduction in general waste capacity through reducing the frequency of general waste collections. Overall capacity is maintained or improved through additional collections for recyclable waste, making recycling a convenient and attractive option. Mass recycling was brought about not through elective behaviour change but through subtle coercion; changes in the waste collection infrastructure were made so that recycling became attractive and convenient, whilst not recycling became a less attractive and less viable option.

Those who wanted to promote recycling realised early on that an approach based mainly on elective behavioural change was inherently limited in its ability to deliver significant gains in recycling rates. Elective cycle training, “Be nice,” and “Mutual respect,” campaigns directed at both motorists and cyclists, and things like Bike Week are all similarly limited. A few weeks after the end of “Can collection month,” I had a bag of cans I wanted to recycle, but because the waste collection infrastructure was based around not recycling, and I was too young to take them to the recycling centre myself, I ended up throwing them into the bin and I forgot about the issues and importance of recycling. In 2011, at the end of Bike Week, there will be the same realisation and people will get back into their cars and forget about cycling for another year, because approaches based extensively on conscious, elective behavioural change are inherently very limited in their ability to bring about significant long-term results.

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