A food waste recycling campaign unwrapped

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Harriet Robinson: Food for thought
Harriet Robinson: Food for thought

Guest author Harriet Robinson describes a waste recycling behaviour change campaign.

Working in local government it’s very rare you get the opportunity to put a big budget behind a communications campaign.

That’s why I couldn’t believe my luck when the council was successful in its bid to get funding from environment charity WRAP to run a food waste recycling behaviour change campaign. At £80,000, it was the biggest budget I’d ever had to play with during my relatively short career in the communications and PR industry. I was so excited and motivated at the prospect of being able to make a real difference to the community and environment through my work.

But then the doubts started to kick in: I’ve never been in this position before – am I completely out of my depth? I’ve never done a behaviour change campaign before – where I do I even start?

Thankfully, I was also about to embark on my first assignment of the CIPR Professional PR Diploma with PR Academy. It was this assignment – which made me dedicate enough time to the campaign, as well as the willingness of residents to participate – that led to the campaign doubling the amount of food waste recycling in the borough.

To put this into context, within the first full month of the campaign, residents from our 53,000 households recycled 145 tonnes more food waste than in the previous month – which was an increase of 57%.

That meant 145 tonnes of food waste was used to create sustainable energy, rather than it rotting in landfill. Of course, this initial result was amazing but what was even better was knowing this was not just a one off; the council had managed to achieve sustained behaviour change and the great results continued. After a year food waste recycling was up by 50% (an amazing result considering our target was to increase it by 10%). To know that I had played a pivotal part in making such a fantastic impact was an amazing feeling.

So how did I do it?


Time is something we don’t always think we have enough of, but giving myself the space to do research meant I produced a more strategic, targeted and thought-through piece of work, which had a better chance of success.

I used census demographic data (free to get and useful if, like me, your organisation doesn’t have Mosaic) and compared it with recycling rates across other boroughs in the county to see if there were any correlations. After many combinations (age, ethnicity, intelligence etc. showing no or weak correlations) I finally found something worth exploring further: areas with more women were less likely to recycle their food waste. I then went onto explore reasons why this may be.

I looked at studies and research papers already out there, including on the barriers to recycling and studies into the recycling habits and behaviours of households.

In case you’re wondering, it is generally the men in a household who take out the bins but it’s the women who make the decision for the household to recycle or not in the first place. The common barriers stopping people from recycling their food waste were mainly around perceived hygiene concerns and worries about the smell, so I wanted to dispel some of the misconceptions in my campaign messaging.

I also looked at food waste recycling campaigns done by other organisations and councils to get some inspiration and see what worked and what didn’t.

Segmenting my audience

Although my target audience was essentially every person in the borough that was able to use a bin, my research really helped me to pinpoint some specific target audiences I needed to reach to have the greatest impact. In this case, my research had helped me to establish my main audience should be females.

When I drilled down even further I found that there was no point heavily targeting older females; they were more likely to make meals with smaller portion sizes and use up leftovers, so therefore weren’t producing much waste.

However, one segment I did want to target was mothers. With busy lives and established routines, fussy children refusing to eat the same as the rest of the family and lots of leftovers taking up space in their fridges, only to be destined for the dustbin, this really was a group of people I needed to reach.

How did I reach them?

The campaign included the direct delivery of bin stickers, leaflets and caddy liners to every household in the borough on their bin collection day, as well as social media posts, press releases, an update of our recycling webpages, posters, articles in the council magazine and bus and train advertising for target commuters.

To specifically target mothers, I also organised engagement roadshows at local clothes swap events and leisure centres during swimming lessons, reached out to local Facebook groups for mums, put up banners at council playgrounds, community centres and cinemas and produced a video encouraging mums to get their children involved in cooking and teaching them to use up leftovers and put peelings in their caddies.

Behaviour Change Models

Essentially, all we wanted residents to do was to stop putting waste in their black bins and put it in a green caddy which was picked up on the same day. Sounds simple, but when you’re working with people with engrained habits and beliefs you need to do something noticeable that makes them think differently – and at the right time – to get them to switch their behaviours.

For me, the most helpful model I used to help me identify my tactics and approach for the campaign was the Government Communication Service’s EAST Behaviour Change model.

The model states that in order to get people to switch their behaviours, the task needs to be easy, attractive, social and timely.

This is how I applied it to some of the tactics for the campaign:

Easy We made it as easy as possible for people to start recycling their food waste by providing them with a how-do guide with hints on how to keep their bin from smelling, caddy liners (enough for three months) to put in their bins and information on how to get a caddy if they didn’t already have one. This gave them all they needed to started recycling and creating new habits.
Attractive The campaign used bold, modern graphics and pictures of fresh peelings, rather than rotting food to make it more appealing. We also used a ‘no food waste’ sticker on black bins which grabbed people’s attention.
Social We delivered the materials to everyone at the same time, on the same bin round and generated conversations about the benefits of recycling food waste in Facebook community groups.
Timely As everyone received information on a collection day when their bins were empty, this presented an opportunity for people to change their recycling habits.