Using two-part feedback to tackle contamination

We are surrounded by feedback. Rate your meal, your Uber trip, or your hotel stay. The value of feedback hit home to me recently during an exercise class. The teacher said “foot on the floor” three times, but I thought that one foot on the floor was plenty. When she took my other, floating foot, and placed it on the floor, I received feedback that was:

Whilst the original instruction “foot on the floor” was feedback, I hadn’t acted on it, perhaps because it lacked the elements above. The initial feedback had also lacked an intervention (I).  

We could use this type of feedback to successfully tackle contamination, breaking it down into two parts.

Part one

WRAP's Tracker Survey indicates that residents don’t always know if they are recycling correctly. They assume they are doing it right because their bin is collected. They might get a tag on their bin that advises better practice, but, is messaging such as “no nappies” or “plastic bottles only” like the “foot on the floor” instruction I’d received - and ignored? These messages lack the elements of ‘RAMI’, for example:

  • Relevant – a bin tag on the contaminated bin
  • Accessible – telling the resident what to do next
  • Meaningful – telling the resident what is wrong
  • Intervention – the bin is left unemptied, requiring action from the resident

For some, a tag on a bin is enough to prompt a change in behaviour (“I must stop putting cat litter in this bin”). For others, it could be seen as a win (“I got away with it!”). When crews leave behind tagged contaminated recycling bins, the resident should act. If all four points of RAMI have been addressed, this is more likely, particularly if reinforced with a letter from the local authority to the resident.

For example, recent research from Resource London’s (RL) Cost of Contamination Toolkit found that dealing with contamination (on a reactive basis) can cost local authorities many thousands of pounds every year. To address this, RL ran the Tackling Contamination Project which firstly helped authorities enforce their contamination policies and coupled this with refreshed communications by tagging bins and sending direct letters to residents. In one case study, over two thousand letters were sent over 33 weeks, and contamination rates reduced by 14%.


Part two

Clear and measured communications to waste management crews is also key to tackling contamination. Anecdotal evidence from the Tackling Contamination Project showed that when crews’ working practices are observed by an officer, reporting of contamination significantly increases.

There are several reasons for this. Crews like to complete their rounds quickly and deciding if a bin is contaminated is a subjective task. From our work with Local Authorities, we know there is very little monitoring of crews’ effectiveness in reporting contamination. Rather, crew supervision and monitoring need to prioritise Health and Safety and missed bins.

Our work with Local Authorities shows less than 0.5% of bins are tagged on some rounds, yet contamination levels at the MRF can be over 18%. The rate of bin tagging varies considerably between crews, most often due to the attitude of the specific crew. Some recommendations for addressing this are to analyse:

  • Round/day tagging and reporting rates
  • How effective crew supervision is
  • What happens to tagging and reporting rates if another person observes the crews?
  • What happens if someone goes ahead of the crews and logs which bins are contaminated? Does it match with where crews tag and report contaminated bins?

Analysis collected on crew effectiveness can be fed back to crews to help change behaviour. Our work suggests that it is feasible for crews to safely carry out their duties, including effective action on contamination, within their contracted hours, but the data is very patchy. It is too soon to say what type of feedback intervention to achieve a change in crew behaviour would work best.

If the feedback principles are followed, the need for intensive action by crews should be short lived. By continuing to be vigilant and acting on contamination, crews should experience reduced work load in the longer term.

For further support and recommendations, take a look at WRAP's guidance on cutting contamination. If you have any queries, please email