There have been a plethora of news stories in recent weeks about brands redesigning their packaging to improve its recyclability, and announcing bold new commitments to meet sustainability targets.
Examples include Britvic switching to 100% recycled plastic bottles by 2022, and Subway phasing out plastic salad bowls in favour of cardboard ones.
Whilst this is all very welcome news, brands and manufacturers can only do so much. As soon as the consumer purchases a product, it becomes their responsibility to dispose of it and its packaging correctly, to ensure that the recyclability of the product is capitalised on. If a product's packaging has become 100% recyclable but the end-user is still throwing it in their general waste bin, the desired result has not been achieved.
Part of the problem is that there is still ambiguity for consumers around what can and can't be recycled. For example, people may be unaware that aerosol cans, lightbulbs or even inhalers can be recycled. Knowing how to dispose of things correctly can also be an issue, with several recent news stories centring around the problem of people throwing used batteries in their general waste bins, in some cases causing fires in waste vehicles and at waste facilities.
Recycling and sustainability have become hot topics on social media, with hashtags like #plasticfree surging in popularity in the past year, and activists like Greta Thunberg becoming cover stars for the sustainability movement. But this hasn't translated into increased recycling rates - in 2018/19, 43.5% of household waste was recycled, compared to 43.7% in 2016/17. Whilst, not a huge decrease, neither is it an increase, despite the boom in environmentally-conscious social media users.
How can we educate consumers?
Social media is a great place to start - as social platforms are becoming more established as hotbeds for discussions around recycling and sustainability, they are the ideal place to convey messages about the dos and don'ts of recycling. Veolia's social media feeds contain tips on how to recycle certain items and easily digestible pieces of advice that can be shared by consumers.
There is also work to be done in terms of packaging, and making disposal and recycling instructions clearer. Consistent, widespread use of standardised icons helps consumers to recycle items correctly. It is also important for brands to not only push the fact that they have made items more recyclable but to clearly signpost to end-users how they should dispose of the product or packaging.