The NSW EPA has just published the results of phone interviews with 1200 NSW residents about waste and recycling.

Although primarily designed as a benchmark study, it has some interesting insights.

What’s surprising and what’s in it for program designers?

Wow. 20 years of effort really pays off

The outstanding finding is just how thoroughly normalised kerbside recycling has become in Australia.

97% said they recycle

94% said it’s important

89% said they’re concerned about the amount of waste society produces

88% said they’re confident they know what to recycle

Note that just because 97% said they recycle, it doesn’t mean that 97% do recycle, or that they do it well. This kind of survey has a big “social desirability bias”, which means that people report what they think is socially acceptable. The real value of this research is to track changing social norms, which are big drivers of behaviour. And it’s clear from this figure that not recycling is about as socially acceptable as having a methamphetamine habit. In fact far more people (12%) admit to drink driving.

The survey also confirms the strong environmental values of Australians: 85% said they are have ‘a great deal’ or ‘a fair amount’ of concern about environmental problems generally, the strongest framing being “concern for future generations” (38%).

Home composting and worm farming are firmly normalised too

43% said they compost their garden waste.

The home composting rate has been around that level for a decade so no surprises there. It’s likely that further growth is mainly constrained by context (small yards, apartments, no gardens etc), so it’s OK that it’s just 43%. The slack has been taken up by green waste collection services, with 59% participation, which are also thoroughly normalised:

88% said that food and garden organics collection is a good idea.

However a surprising finding about home composting is that, although 43% said they composted:

only 28% composted their food waste as well.

That’s a 15% “food composting gap”! I’ll wager that ‘yuck factor’ fears about rats, flies and smells are the big barriers here. This is likely to be tacklable by communication efforts: let people hear from those who love their compost bins, and aren’t worried about bugs and flies (but keep the methods super-simple).

Wasted food bothers people

72% were concerned about how much food they throw away (but 60% said they threw away very little…what a lovely example of social desirability bias!)


64% thought that food waste was the largest type of waste in the average household bin.

The researchers concluded “There is a lack of knowledge around the issue or problem of food waste being the largest waste item in NSW; this suggests that an opportunity for a broad-reach message exists.” Sorry, that doesn’t follow. It’s circular reasoning. Just because people don’t know something doesn’t automatically mean that knowing it will change their behaviour.

Food waste is almost certainly an example of ‘busy people with a problem’ that they don’t have the cognitive bandwidth to solve. So solutions have to work in the context of time pressure and lots of distractions. Food over-purchasing is a fascinating challenge: how do we design solutions that are easy fits for people’s food lives. Anthropological research anyone? Design thinkers? (A nice example: just getting people to colour code their fridge shelves reduces food waste.)

Do recycling misconceptions matter?

The researchers asked a lot of questions about people’s general waste knowledge (beliefs). They adopted a KAB (Knowledge – Attitudes – Behaviour) model for their project, so they had to. They found, for example, that:

59% of people didn’t know that recycling saves water, energy and fuel.

But this finding is only useful if we think specific bits of knowledge change behaviour. Who believes that any more? Even the researchers have doubts, prefacing their findings by admitting that “There is no consensus in the environmental and recycling behaviour literature about the linear relationship between recycling attitudes or beliefs and recycling behaviours.”

Does it matter that people don’t correctly understand the environmental benefits of recycling?  For example, 30% say they only recycle ‘because council tells them to’. If they’re doing the right thing does it matter what the reason is?

20% of people believed that mixing incorrect items into recycling doesn’t matter.

That finding might possibly be more useful, but it’s very hard to interpret. People so often adopt beliefs to justify their behaviours, so even we could change a belief, people might just adopt a different belief to keep on doing what they are driven to do by their context of infrastructure, social norms, and economics.

Problem wastes are …a problem

It’s not surprising that people have trouble disposing of these wastes. The very concept “problem wastes” is brand new and the systems are only just being introduced – notably the Community Recycling Centres.


94% of people thought some items were harmful to the environment and needed special disposal.


81% of people said they would travel to dispose of problem wastes.

But beware of the wording of this question. I too, in theory, “would” travel to correctly dispose my old paint, batteries and smoke alarms, but they’re currently piled up in my laundry and are likely to remain there for the foreseeable future because the free half day it would take to drive them somewhere does not exist.

Reflecting this, 36% of people thought it was inconvenient to dispose of problem wastes. But another 37% said it was ‘fairly convenient’ . I think we can safely hear this as ‘faaaiiiirrrrrly convenient’, meaning ‘actually, fairly inconvenient’, giving us a total figure of 73% who think it’s inconvenient. 11% said ‘don’t know’…so that leaves just 16% who think it’s easy to dispose of this stuff.

When we hear ‘inconvenience’ it’s a call for service design. Community Recycling Centres are an experiment to test out what that kind of service might look like. It will be very interesting to look at the take-up of the CRC v1.0 to see what we learn about removing these wastes from the community.

Scary stuff

91% said it was NOT OK to put small amounts of asbestos in the waste bin.

That just goes to show how fear creates attention.

Old clothes

Most people like their old clothes and furniture to be reused.

70% had used a charity shop or bin

13% of thought that the kerb is a fine place to put stuff for impromptu community recycling.


No one likes a dumper.

76% said they’d report a dumper

Only 1% admitted doing it.


22% of people thought that charities could find a use for everything, regardless of condition; and

16% thought it was OK to dump unwanted goods outside charity shops and bins.

Those two misconceptions would make a nice excuse for a marketing campaign to remind the whole community about illegal dumping generally. Even though everyone knows dumping is illegal, it’s in such ambiguous territory where social standards start to slip and everyone can do with a reminder.

Apartment dwellers and renters

Unsurprisingly, apartment dwellers and renters score somewhat lower on every measure. They know a little less and do the right thing a little less. It’s hard to manage waste in a small space, where the bin bay is six flights of stairs away. Again, when inconvenience is the cause, convenience is the solution, and systems and infrastructure are the answer. Also, we know that self-appointed apartment champs make a big difference to the culture of the block. How could we support champs?

Dumping is strongly associated with unit blocks and people with plenty of other issues on their minds. That’s a classic ‘people with a problem’ situation! On-site infrastructure, and better deployment of council pick-up services, will drive improvement.

Hard to reach

The researchers defined two population segments which are the inevitable targets of waste and recycling efforts:

“Good intentions” (12%) “they do care about the environment and recycling, but they do not carry out the desired behaviours; there are some barriers stopping them from translating goodwill into action.” They are mostly younger (16-29 years) and more likely to live in apartments or unit blocks.

“The hard to reach” (10%) “they do not care about the environment and recycling and do not carry out the desired behaviours, [and are] more likely to younger (aged 16–29 years), on lower incomes, working in a trade-based profession, and without access to a car.”

These groups are the targets of the recycling challenge. This 22% is where all the work needs to be done, yet they are the classic “laggards” in the recycling bell curve.

Laggards can’t easily be categorised. Paraphrasing Dostoyevsky, “All good recyclers are alike, each bad recycler is bad in his own way.” There are likely to be a tremendous diversity of life challenges and constraints affecting the ability of these people to “recycle right.” Practically the only general statement that’s likely to be true is that many will have low cognitive bandwidth for recycling, meaning that they are thinking about other things and will keep thinking about other things no matter what we do. If we want better results in these groups, then system innovation to increase convenience will be an important part of the answer.


The study made findings about CALD respondents. Generally, they do somewhat worse on most scores. Which is not surprising. There is, of course, no such thing as a ‘CALD’. These people are a fantastically diverse, from high socio-economic apartment dwellers in Chatswood, to new arrivals in Merrylands, from wildly different cultures. Designing solutions for these groups requires sensitive, responsive, one-off projects that are willing to learn as they go.

The big picture

The survey confirms the extraordinary degree to which recycling is normalised in NSW. That’s an opportunity. It means people who recycle ‘wrong’ – practically all of us, at some time – are teetering on the psychological ‘discrepancy’ between our behaviours and the social norms we accept. Psychological discrepancy creates discomfort and motivates people to do something about it. Apart from the 10% ‘hard to reach’, everyone knows what’s right and wants to do the right thing. That we often fail is partly about systems that are absent or hard to use, and partly about the complexities of life that sabotage the cognitive bandwidth we need to maintain or alter our daily practices. Reminders about just how normal recycling is – sparking feelings of discrepancy – might just help us allocate just a little more bandwidth to these activities.

This research actually suggests a generic Theory of Change for the Waste Less, Recycle More program:

IF convenient systems are in place;

AND people are reminded about what’s socially normal;

AND people who do the ‘wrong’ thing believe others might see them doing it;

THEN There will be an increase in good recycling behaviour in NSW.

Which, funnily enough, is already the TOC behind the Tosser campaign!

LINK: The EPA’s Waste Less, Recycle More Initiative Community benchmark study