For many years, local government could shrug off Britain's poor performance on household waste recycling by saying that the real problem was under-investment in services. Now, with kerbside collection the norm and composting schemes in most parts over the country, the question of public engagement has moved to centre stage.
The latest figures show just how far local authorities have travelled in the past few years. Nearly 23% of English household waste was recycled or composted in 2004/05. Ministers are now talking seriously about a 60% recycling rate being achievable (ENDS Report 368, p 16).
An important catalyst for change in England was the statutory targets set in 2000 that required councils to improve their recycling performance. Another was the landfill allowance trading scheme, under which councils face huge penalties if they fail to find alternative waste management solutions.
Engaging the public
The best methods for diverting waste from landfill often turn out to pose the most daunting challenges in terms public engagement. They require people - all kinds of people - to change their behaviour as consumers and householders.
Alive to these challenges, many local authorities have developed campaigns of their own, but most have failed to achieve a profile. The London Borough of Barnet resorted to threatening householders with prosecution for failure to use recycling services (ENDS Report 351, p 22), but this "stick-based" approach is not favoured by the Government.
Large-scale campaigns are not new. Slim Your Bin, launched in the Anglian region in the late-1990s, was the first to give local authorities experience of working with a brand and, more important, television advertising (ENDS Report 301, pp 11-12).
Funded by waste companies and Anglian TV - which provided six weeks' free advertising - councils in the area were given access to campaign materials to use in literature, adverts and roadshows.
The campaign got itself noticed - 34% of people could recall the slogan when prompted - and it gave waste departments invaluable experience in engaging the public. A downside was that the number of people who said they found recycling "too much effort" appeared to have doubled during the campaign.
Next came the National Waste Awareness Initiative, which launched its Rethink Rubbish slogan in 2002 (ENDS Report 326, p 21). The logo was found across the country everywhere from bus stops to Asda stores in the two years it ran. But it was hampered by a meagre budget - just £2.5 million - and retailers took a dislike to having the word "rubbish" on their products.
Nonetheless, it was a surprise to most local authorities when Rethink Rubbish was wound up last year after responsibility was transferred to the Waste and Resources Action Programme.
WRAP's new campaign - Recycle Now - was launched a year ago (ENDS Report 357, p 16). It had support from many organisations that had been involved with Rethink Rubbish - including SWAP, Waste Watch and a 16-strong local authority forum.
More than a logo
"Rethink Rubbish was just a logo," says Julie Brown, WRAP's head of communications. "We wanted a proper advertising campaign.
"All our research showed that if you try to scare people into recycling and talk to them about 'rubbish', they'll think it's too big a problem. So we had to come up with a positive message saying, 'Do it, everyone else is'."
Recycle Now has certainly stayed positive. Guaranteed funding of £10 million for its first two years - taken from WRAP's £30 million communications and awareness budget - the focal point of the campaign is a heart-shaped logo, developed by media firm Corporate Culture that is supposed to convey the message "I love recycling".
The advertising campaign alongside it is equally upbeat. Developed by Team Saatchi and made up of radio, television and newspaper adverts, it features a cartoon family who show how easy it is to recycle and what can be made from recycled materials. Four materials have featured so far - paper, cans, glass and green waste.
The tagline that runs on the bottom of broadsheet newspaper adverts - "Recycle me and in seven days I could be back in your arms as a new paper" - typifies the approach, as does the cheery voiceover Eddie Izzard lends to the TV and radio ads.
A PR campaign has also tied in celebrities such as Matthew Pinsent and events such as the Ashes to secure media coverage.
The campaign has targeted "main shoppers with children" - people who "recycle a little but can do more", according to Ms Brown. In advertisers' language, this means 25-45 year olds in the B-D employment groups, "with a slight female bias".
Despite such targeting, audited figures show that 94.3% of England's population have seen a Recycle Now TV advert. The target audience, meanwhile, has seen one more than 21 times.
As further evidence of the campaign's success, Ms Brown points to the voluntary use of the campaign's materials by everyone from television soaps such as Eastenders to members of the Periodical Publishers Association.
This time, most of the supermarkets have also become heavily involved - with Tesco, Asda and Sainsbury's featuring the branding at some of their recycling centres, on "bags for life" and in their customer magazines.
What the campaign is measured against, however, is the number of "committed recyclers" - people in the country "who take full advantage of kerbside schemes and civic amenity sites," according to Ms Brown.
WRAP aims to raise the proportion of such people in England from 45% before the campaign began to 55% by March 2006. By July, the rate had reached 49%, and WRAP is confident it will meet its target.
The Environment Department (DEFRA) appears equally convinced. It awarded the campaign an extra £20 million for the two years from 2006 (ENDS Report 368, p 15).
Perhaps what WRAP is most proud of is the success that Recycle Now appears to be having among local authorities - all of which can use the campaign materials and access guidelines for their use from a "partners" website.1
A WRAP survey of 56 authorities earlier this year found that 86% are using the logo and 76% intend to extend their use of the brand in the future. Over 65% are using Recycle Now as their main brand.
Around 95% have also used the "partners" website, and 90% subscribe to the newsletter.
But it is more difficult to say what impact the campaign has on the ground. It is only local authority staff who can really answer such questions. It does not take much ringing around to hear negative views from some recycling officers .
"If I wanted a recycling campaign, I'd already have one," one recycling officer said, on condition of anonymity.
One group of authorities whose experience suggests Recycle Now is a success is the Suffolk Waste Partnership (SWP), comprising seven district councils plus the county.
"What's Recycle Now given us?" asks Mark Parkinson, fund manager for the partnership. "Credibility." Previous campaigns were not as professional.
"If you can imagine eight authorities working in partnership, all with their own ideas about branding, it doesn't work. One's got a recycling rapping robot it wants to use; another's got a puppet. This is the first time we've been able to pull it all together and act as a whole. And that's what the public wants."
Suffolk's involvement with Recycle Now began inadvertently in February 2004 when it applied for funding for a waste awareness campaign from WRAP's local communities fund, which takes up the remaining £20 million from WRAP's communications and awareness budget.
WRAP closed the first round of applications without informing any authorities that Rethink Rubbish was about to end, meaning the SWP, and others, referred to it in their applications. "It's one of the few mistakes they made with this," says Daniel Sage, the SWP's research and development officer.
In spite of that, the SWP was one of around 140 authorities to be awarded funding. It received £403,000 to fund communications work as the authorities switched to alternate weekly collections. This included hiring 16 staff to doorstep residents and tell them how to use their new bins.
It is a condition of the funding that local authorities use the Recycle Now logo, but after "taking one look" at the campaign, the SWP decided to adopt its branding wholeheartedly, according to Mr Parkinson.
Such a move involved dropping several logos from council literature - including "Slim Your Bin" and local branding such as "Sort It". But this only provided advantages for the authority, Mr Parkinson says, and not just in terms of being able to link up with a national TV campaign.
"If you think about the Gershon Review [of Government spending], this makes so much sense. It's saving us having to go out to a design consultancy. All of a sudden I've been given the tools and money I need to communicate with the public."
Since the campaign began last September, recycling has risen steeply across Suffolk, while anecdotal evidence suggests contamination of kerbside recycling schemes has fallen. St Edmundsbury, for example, has seen its recycling rate jump from 35% in 2003/04 to 50.66% in 2004/05.
Mr Parkinson is aware, however, of the limits in attributing such success solely to Recycle Now. Much of it, especially the drop in contamination, is down to the doorstepping staff and the alternate weekly collections. It will be hard to tease out Recycle Now's influence when the scheme is evaluated in the spring (another requirement of WRAP funding).
To a certain extent, Recycle Now has simply come along at the right time. "People would argue Slim Your Bin wasn't successful, but at the time it wasn't supported by kerbside schemes. People had to go to civic amenity sites. That isn't the case now," says Mr Parkinson.
Many other local authorities that switched to Recycle Now as soon as it was launched are expecting to see similar increases in recycling when they evaluate their schemes.
North East Derbyshire, for example, a mostly rural authority, was awarded £58,000 from the local communications fund to rebrand its literature and run a recycling incentive scheme offering schools money based on the amount of material collected in their ward.
"Recycle Now has put recycling on TV," says Mike Greenhalf of the council's health and environment department. "On its own that wouldn't have achieved much, but linked in with what we've done at a local level, it's made a real difference."
Awareness of the Recycle Now logo has hit 58% in citizen panels, he says - a "dramatic" increase on past initiatives.
In his mind, there are no possible alternatives to Recycle Now because of such success. "Maybe if we were a large authority with a lot of clout - like London - I could run a successful scheme myself. But most councils don't command that support or respect."
Not everyone, however, shares such views. It is hard to find councils willing to speak on the record about their problems with the campaign, for fear of jeopardising WRAP funding. But several who spoke to ENDS said they would not invest wholly in the initiative after they have built up their own "successful" brand identities.
And, as one local authority officer said, they were definitely not going to invest in something the Government might dump in a year's time, just as it dumped Rethink Rubbish.
Some complaints are more prosaic - about the campaign's colour scheme not fitting in with their own branding, for instance.
A more profound criticism involves the simplistic nature of Recycle Now's message. "To sound obvious, Recycle Now is basically a recycling campaign," said one county council officer. "We think a broader message is more important. We want people to look at what they're consuming, not just at how much they recycle. We could increase that simply by rolling out kerbside collections."
"Whatever happened to minisimation?" asked another. "The mixed messages are just confusing things."
WRAP answers such criticisms by pointing out that it has drawn up "reduce" and "reuse" logos for local authorities that want to focus on minimisation. It also points out that the campaign is likely to move into waste minimisation in the future.
A deeper look at the Recycle Now partners website, however, suggests that move may be a while off. Its guide to relaunching an existing service, for example, reminds authorities to "tackle one issue or cultural behaviour change at a time".
"Recycling is the easiest action for most people to understand and take on board," it says. "Adding other messages such as waste minimisation and buying recycled products can be confusing and reduce the impact of the campaign."
Those authorities that do want to promote waste minimisation appear to have had to go it alone. Oxfordshire County Council, for example, felt a need to "jump on the Recycle Now bandwagon" soon after its launch, according to household waste reduction manager Katie Zabel. "It was clearly providing a lot of drive," she said.
Oxfordshire did not, though, want to lose the waste minimisation message it had developed while using Rethink Rubbish. "The words Rethink Rubbish were very general, you could pin what you wanted on them," Ms Zabel says. "With Recycle Now, the message is very specific. We didn't want to take a step back with our message and confuse residents, so we met with WRAP and got them to make the words 'reuse' and 'reduce' available in the new logo."
The county, thanks to internal funding, is now coming to the end of a two-month "reduce, reuse, recycle for Oxfordshire" advertising campaign. Costing £23,000, it involved two weeks of radio advertising as well as adverts on buses, taxis, billboards and street posters. A recycling centre was also rebranded at additional cost.
The success of the scheme in raising waste awareness is unknown, although a three-person call centre set up specially for the campaign received over 1,000 enquiries in its first month.
Irrespective of whether recycling increases - or waste arisings fall - Ms Zabel still feels WRAP should make the next round of the communications fund open to waste minimisation projects.
Aside waste minimisation, one other criticism that looms on Recycle Now's horizon is that it has yet to tackle ethnic minorities. At a one-day event celebrating the campaign's first year in Birmingham in September, several council officers asked WRAP if the campaign materials could be translated into languages other than English to make it easier - and cheaper - to reach such groups.
WRAP's guidance on engaging ethnic minorities in recycling schemes suggests that even if translation occurred Recycle Now would have difficulty reaching such groups, and that face-to-face contact is needed.
Ms Brown of WRAP does point out that "icons" with pictures of materials are available to help councils communicate with ethnic minorities. They can be put on publicity material and have been tested successfully. She adds that WRAP has started work with the community sector. A forum including representatives from ethnic minorities met this spring. However, she cannot offer specific ways that Recycle Now will engage such groups.
Preaching to the unconverted
At the event in Birmingham, there was much talk about bringing "new family members" and material streams into the advertising programme, and of moving into new media and developing email marketing campaigns. But there was precious little about how to reach less receptive recyclers.
For Ms Brown, such talk should not detract from Recycle Now's gains over its first twelve months. "Look, the initial campaign was focusing on people who recycle some stuff some of the time. For the next tranche we will look at people who recycle less.
"We admit we're not perfect. But what I hope local authorities realise is that we can only benefit them; we can't hinder them. We're giving them more bang for their buck."