June 30th, 2017

Is recycling confusing?

8 minute read

by Peter Jones and Joe Papineschi


There’s one thing everyone seems to agree on regarding recycling: it’s confusing. It’s a familiar complaint from countless press articles and broadcast pieces; when surveyed, people say they find recycling confusing; and Defra has taken up the theme. Part of the rationale for WRAP’s consistency programme is to ‘help address confusion’ by encouraging greater uniformity in councils’ recycling services.

There’s something right about this: some people don’t understand their local recycling collection system very well. But while there seems to be widespread agreement that ‘confusion’ is the right label for the problem, this seems to mask very divergent views on what it is that confuses people, what the effects are, and how to fix it. In fact, it looks like the language of ‘confusion’ is itself in danger of causing confusion.


Confused background

The context in which the ‘confusion’ narrative has emerged is defined by:


Both of these (linked) phenomena have been blamed on public confusion. People would like to recycle more, the argument goes, but councils’ recycling systems are just too confusing. People therefore err on the side of caution, and put recyclable material in the residual waste; or err the other way and contaminate their recycling bins with material they (wrongly) hope is recyclable.

So, confusion is a concern for policy makers primarily because it is thought to have a negative impact on recycling rates or recycling quality. If we’re going to expend resources on addressing ‘confusing’ aspects of recycling, it should be because we expect the result to be measurable improvements in recycling. Let’s call this type of confusion ‘policy relevant’.

Three main causes of confusion are regularly identified:


So, how plausible is each of these as a cause of ‘policy relevant’ confusion?


Systematic confusion

Since councils first began collecting recycling, they have designed their own collection systems independently. These have always been diverse, driven by the preferences of councillors and (for co-mingled systems) the capabilities of accessible sorting facilities.

The exact pathway by which diversity is thought to give rise to confusion is rarely explained. For someone living in Portsmouth, how does the existence of a somewhat different system in Sunderland or Carlisle affect your recycling behaviour? Would you even know about it?

Perhaps confusion arises when people compare notes with friends in neighbouring authorities. “If cartons are recyclable down the road,” they might wonder, “are they here, too?” In fact, with the rise of waste partnerships, there are probably more areas of uniformity now than in the period when recycling rates were growing strongly.

If what mattered was local consistency, we might expect to see areas that have more consistent systems perform better. There is little evidence that this is the case. Take Greater Manchester as an example: while there are some variations between local authorities there, all use a two stream system, where householders separate paper and card from other dry recycling. Yet one survey found Manchester residents were the people in the UK most likely to say they were confused about recycling rules; and (based on 2014/15 data) the average dry recycling reject rate across Greater Manchester authorities was 3.3% – barely different from the national average for this system of 3.4%. Neither of these pieces of data suggests regional uniformity gets rid of confusion.


Moving target

Perhaps confusion arises when someone moves house. The majority of house moves, though, are within a local authority area, with only around 2.85 million people a year (5% of the population) moving across council boundaries in England and Wales. Fewer still move between authorities with different collection systems (the 50,000 who moved within Greater Manchester, for example, will not have changed recycling system).

Even if all cross-boundary movers are initially confused, is it plausible that this small segment of the population is responsible for holding back recycling? How long might it be, on average, before they become ‘unconfused’, perhaps because they receive information from the council on how to recycle in their new home? If people received information on recycling when they move into a new home, as Eunomia recently suggested for tenants, perhaps moving house would boost their engagement with recycling – much as seems to happen when councils change their collection system. Far from ‘confusing’ everyone, a change of system, and the communication work that happens alongside it, typically boosts recycling.


Caption: Has the confusion narrative left us scrabbling for answers to the wrong question? Photo: Michael Havens (CC BY 2.0), via Flickr.


Finally, one might point to the rapid growth in Wales’s recycling rate, which followed the Welsh Government’s decision to promote a single Collections Blueprint for local authorities to follow, which included source separated dry recycling. However, services across Wales are still far from uniform, and several authorities have not adopted the blueprint model. In fact, Wales shows that, even without full consistency in dry recycling collection systems, a great deal of progress can be made.

The idea that having to separate waste into more containers confuses people may sound plausible, but the evidence that it produces ‘policy-relevant’ confusion is weak. The multi-stream collections specified in the Collections Blueprint, which typically involve householders separating dry recycling into three streams, are quite widespread in Wales, and many authorities using them are achieving high recycling rates. Meanwhile, across the country, multi-stream authorities have much lower levels of rejects than those that mix materials.


Material differences

In fact, most recyclables are easy to distinguish from one another. People are readily able to tell glass from paper or plastic. The things they struggle with (e.g. recyclable and non-recyclable plastics) aren’t made more ‘confusing’ by the need to separate material into different containers. There might be other psychological impacts of multiple bins (irritation, a sense that recycling is hard work, concern about storage space) but they don’t seem likely to exacerbate ‘confusion’.

The most plausible cause of confusion, then, is the characteristics of packaging materials themselves. It isn’t easy to explain why some plastics are recyclable, but black plastic or plant pots aren’t; why most paper is, but glittery or metallic wrapping paper may not be. Collection system consistency may help to some degree: if all councils collect plastic pots, tubs and trays, for example, it will make it easier for on-pack labelling to say clearly whether a particular container is recyclable – but such changes could be made without harmonising anything else about the design of systems!

The biggest simplification would be for producers to simplify packaging and ensure that more of it is recyclable. Some are already moving in this direction, but others may need clearer incentives – for example, a producer responsibility scheme that makes those who put confusing, hard to recycle materials on the market pay more towards the costs of their collection, sorting and recycling.


Questionable questions

If the data doesn’t really support the idea that recycling systems are confusing, why do so many surveys say people are confused? Few make available full details of their methods or findings, but one company was kind enough to share the questions from a survey that had found a high level of confusion. These included:

“Would you say you are confused by local recycling rules? Yes / No”

No other attitudes to recycling were enquired about. Might fewer respondents have said they were ‘confused’ if they were given other options or asked a different question?

It would be interesting to examine the methodology of more surveys – but from what we have seen, some scepticism regarding the validity of the survey results may be warranted. ‘Confusion’ risks being used as a catch-all term for all sorts of dissatisfaction with recycling, and without information on what specifically people find ‘confusing’, such surveys give us little insight into what changes might improve matters.

Thankfully, WRAP has taken a sensible approach to the concerns over confusion. The consistency programme effectively encourages councils to expand the range of materials they collect, while allowing a good deal of freedom over how materials are collected. This can be expected to help improve the recycling rate – but that will be because services have improved, not because confusion has been reduced.

In fact, while not everyone understands their local recycling system, the idea that this is down to the variety of systems in use or the ‘confusing’ nature of certain systems is not borne out by the data. There is no plausible mechanism by which the variety of collection system impedes recycling, and limited statistical support for the idea. ‘Confusing’ multi-container collection systems can yield just as much recycling as ‘simpler’ single bin systems, and produce far less contamination. While the public may well be confused about whether certain materials are recyclable, that confusion is probably best addressed by improving the design of packaging.

So, can we please stop saying that household recycling systems are ‘confusing’, and focus on how we can really improve people’s understanding?


Peter Jones and Joe Papineschi



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We are trying to reduce our recycling needs by reusing and a ust not throwing away.
I write about it on my blog http://www.livinggentler.wordpress.com we are reducing consumption, reusing what we can, and changing how we buy.
Corporate and council recycling schemes are unable to account for peaks and troughs in demand making the process expensive.. We all need to tackle this at source..

Phillip Ward

Maybe this is missing the point a bit. If people say they are confused, they are confused. There may not be a particularly rational reason for that but it affects the way they approach recycling. They may have had leaflets from the council explaining the system but at the point at which a decision is made on which container to put something in, they are unlikely to go searching for a leaflet which itself may have been recycled months ago. They will turn to any advice on the material itself or to what they think they remember or remember someone… Read more »

Peter Jones

Thanks for your detailed and insightful comment on this, Phillip. I particularly like your point about how second-order confusion, and the potential for folk myths to arise. How we address those would be a really interesting issue to explore further I hope we made clear in the article that we agree that some people are undoubtedly confused (though perhaps fewer than survey evidence seems to suggest). But the point of the article is to articulate the view that this is due less to the design of collection systems or the variation between them than to the characteristics of packaging materials.… Read more »

Justin French-Brooks
Justin French-Brooks

I agree wholeheartedly with this piece. It seems likely that “confusion” is a catch-all term for a potential variety of issues, perhaps the most likely being (a) that local authorities have reined back on communicating with their residents on the recycling services they provide, leaving new residents to find out for themselves (which they might not feel sufficiently bothered to do), or (b) that some residents use the term confusion as a synonym for “it takes more effort and therefore isn’t in my personal interest”. Having moved to another county with a different collection system two years ago, I’ve been… Read more »