Bin-shaming: the fine line between recycling education and community alienation
A Sydney council has come under fire for a program in which staff inspect residents’ garbage bins and leave notes with information on how they can better recycle.
In Australia, where all household recycling is collected in one bin, contamination is a huge problem, when a few nonrecyclable products can cause entire trucks’ worth of goods to go to landfill.
To try to reduce contamination, Randwick council, home to Coogee beach, began a program on 16 November in which inspectors look in residents’ bins and, if nonrecyclables are found, “tags” are left behind with information on how the resident can improve.
“Until February 2021, council has engaged a consultant to conduct red and yellow lid bin inspections to gather information so that we can measure current waste minimisation and resource recovery levels,” a council spokeswoman said.
“These consultants conduct visual inspections only, they don’t move or remove any items from the bin.”
The program is part of the council’s plan to divert 75% of waste from landfill by 2022.
The mayor of Cumberland city council, Steve Christou, condemned the approach as “councils spying and intruding on their residents’ privacy” while speaking to Sydney’s the Daily Telegraph.
Assoc Prof Ruth Lane, a recycling expert at the University of Monash, said social pressure could be an effective tool.
“You need to make it normal, that it’s ‘just what you do’,” she said. “People need to feel like the odd one out if they aren’t doing it. That’s how behaviours shift.”
But Lane said Randwick council’s scheme could be too punitive despite the absence of penalties.
“You need to be careful,” she said. “If you are a local government, you need to bring people along with you. I think a punitive approach might not work, you will always have people who just don’t respond to the messaging.”
Lane said transparent recycling bins, which have been suggested or trialled on a small scale in several locations around Australia, might strike the right balance between social pressure and community collaboration.
Adelaide City area councillor Robert Simms proposed their use in June last year, aiming to make the city a leader in recycling.
“If we want to encourage behavioural change, I think this is something that will really encourage people to do the right thing,” Simms told the Advertiser. “In a way, it is kind of naming and shaming.”
Cities around the world are experimenting with how to avoid recycling contamination, many utilising shame.
Christchurch city council in New Zealand has been placing a large gold star on the kerbside wheelie bins of successful recyclers.
Warnings are left on the bins of residents who fail to sort their waste three times and if they still cannot be trusted the council will confiscate the bin. This has led to the percentage of recycling trucks able to head to the sorters nearing 80%.
Ross Trotter, Christchurch city council’s manager for resource and recovery, said the threat of public shaming was usually enough for residents to address the problem.
“The contents of contaminated recycling bins have to go to landfill and it can infect the whole truckload of recycling, so it is a very frustrating issue,” he said.
In San Francisco those who place recyclables in regular waste bins are liable for a fine. The measure has helped the city achieve 80% waste diversion by 2012, with a goal of zero waste by the end of the year.
Lane said the success rate of these schemes varied dramatic based on a country’s culture.
“In Sweden the systems for sorting household waste are actually quite demanding,” she said. “They have six bin compartments all treated in different ways.”
Countries such as Japan have similarly complicated waste management systems, with high compliance rates.
“But Swedes are used to responding to government directions,” Lane said. “There is a social sense of responsibility that isn’t nearly as well developed in Australia.
“But we do have increasing awareness, children are bombarded with the ‘reduce, reuse, recycle’ message … but a more collaborative governance approach is really useful.
“It needs to be easy. There’s a lot in our lives that are difficult, you don’t want to make putting rubbish out harder.”