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How to Take the Complexity out of Recycling in the UK

Published: November 3, 2021

As Executive Director of not-for-profit On-Pack Recycling Label (OPRL), Professor Margaret Bates is on a mission to deliver consistent and straightforward messages that promote recycling and reuse.

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A firm believer in taking personal responsibility for waste, she talks to DSS on how refill is set to become recycling’s best friend, the science behind product packaging, drones, and the power of labels.

Q: Are we there yet on getting people to understand the benefits of recycling and how we can each play our part?

Margaret Bates: In terms of recycling success in the UK, it really depends on where you are in the country, with some parts of the UK more advanced in their understanding and approach than others. There’s no doubt that recycling has a role to play in climate change initiatives, and for it to work requires us all to play a part. On this point, I think there’s some way to go. At present, we tend to look for villains to blame rather than working together to create the facilities whereby recycling is not a chore or complex for users. Everybody has a responsibility, whether it’s the need for local government to provide recycling facilities, brands using sustainable materials, responsible sourcing by retailers or consumers kicking their throw away culture and litter habit. Focusing on any one of these protagonists is not going to solve our recycling problems. We need to collaborate and encourage, rather than resort to finger-wagging.

Q: You mention our throwaway culture and litter habit. How can technology help reverse this in favour of recycling?

Margaret Bates: If we take time to understand why people litter, we can begin to address the problem. Artificial intelligence (AI) and drone technology are now helping us to do this. Several recent projects by Elipsis Earth have helped identify, map and track litter in towns and along coastlines using drones and machine learning. The findings present a fascinating picture of habits that include putting rubbish near a full bin instead of looking for a nearby emptier bin, or even people not understanding that leaving a cigarette butt on the beach is littering. This use of technology can help local authorities identify litter hot spots and step up enforcement and provide more bins and recycling facilities where they are most needed. These steps can then be followed up with messaging and signage to reinforce the benefits of recycling. Read full article

I’d like to see a more sustained and sensible debate about packaging materials, rather than simply ‘anything but’ plastic.

Professor Margaret Bates, Executive Director of not-for-profit On-Pack Recycling Label (OPRL)