Is the Plastics issue masking the wider recycling message?

Behaviour Change Communications Expert, Stephen Bates thinks it is but in his latest blog for LARAC, he considers the opportunity to capitalise on the heightened interest in the whole issue of waste and plastic to benefit those other seemingly forgotten materials we so desperately need more of.

The waste sector and the press have long had a love-hate relationship. News media is all too willing to jump on stories of missed collections, poor service delivery or any other negative issue. But any attempt to get positive examples of recycling success into local or national media is often akin to pushing water up hill. As we all know, positive news rarely sells.

A good PR firm can overcome this but requires adequate funding to do so and to levels that at present is not possible. However, in a wonderful twist of irony, it is the media itself that is enabling a shift in the way waste services are covered in both local and national press.

There’s barely a day that passes without some form of news media talking about the plastic issue. Social media feeds are stuffed full with shared posts and re-tweets on the ambitions of many around the world to tackle the issue. This level of awareness on a single environmental topic is unprecedented. You have to go back to the Ozone Layer problem of the 1980s to find anything comparable – and then social media was flicking through someone else’s newspaper left in the canteen. Today, the mainstream press display abundant support for work being done to address the plastic issue with the narrative now clearly shifting away from awareness to driving tangible solutions. Long may this continue but there is an unintended consequence.

Today, the UK is still way below the quantity and quality of recycling we need to achieve. This, despite the abundance of opportunity, systems and services that exist. Yet anyone recently arriving from Mars would be forgiven for thinking that all we’re interested in is plastic.

Now, I must tread carefully as I don’t want to be seen as a ‘plastic denier’ – that I most certainly am not. I spend an inordinate amount of time in the developing world and see first hand the origin of the problem. Huge unregulated dumpsites existing on coasts, with waste constantly slipping into oceans or storm drains that transverse through illegal dumpsites taking their contents with the storm water out to sea. It’s here where urgent and practical solutions are needed to stem the tide.

In the developed world, institutional responsibility for addressing the plastic issue is focused upon policy driven legislation that influences usage and recovery, as well as supporting the endeavours of those implementing those practical solutions elsewhere.

For the population, the message is clear, reduce the amount of plastic you use and recycle what you do. This is where local authorities can step up to the plate and contribute to the cause by ensuring people know what plastic to recycle and how, overcoming the persistent confusion amongst many as to what is actually recyclable. In the absence of the ability to invest in communications, a means to achieve this is engage the local press.

Invite them to see how plastics are collected and processed. Show them what it’s turned into. Take them out on a collection round. Enthuse them with clear demonstration of the possibilities that exist to contribute towards resolving a global problem, right there in your communities. Good news may not sell but plastic news certainly does. It also gets ‘liked’, ‘shared’, ‘re-tweeted’ and ‘pinned’.

What’s more, the plastic message can then be used as a gateway to other recycling information to an engaged audience keen to do their bit. It provides you a platform to widen the net to encourage greater recycling of all those other materials that are fast getting lost in the sea of PET.

PR alone will never be as effective as a properly coordinated and funded communications campaign but at the moment, it offers a rare opportunity to capitalise upon an open door that will cost you nothing other than some time.



Third and first world problems. (Left) Illegal dumpsites siting by fast moving storm drains that take the waste out to sea including plastic. Not issues we have in the UK (right) where the problems faced are capturing sufficient materials and reducing contamination. But both are interlinked and opens up an opportunity to improve the situation in both locations.