“Siri, where can I return this bottle?”

28 January 2020

Bethan Jones, Head of Behaviour Change at Resource Futures says there’s a “gaping hole” in the Resources and Waste Strategy debate. Particularly when it comes to deposit return schemes.

There have been many column inches and hours at events devoted to how the many different schemes, such as deposit return schemes (DRS), extended producer responsibility (EPR) and national kerbside collections might operate. What infrastructure is needed? What will that mean for the waste industry and for my business? So much uncertainty and yet one critical dimension has barely featured at all. Consumers.

In particular – how we might begin to communicate what this means for them and what we want them to do.

“The possibilities for innovation are endless. We live in a highly connected society where smartphones are as ubiquitous as bins.”

It’s an irony that isn’t lost on me as a behaviour change specialist. Why dream up a deposit return scheme in the first place? To motivate consumers to return their drinks containers so we can prevent at source empty containers bobbing on our seas. This is a behaviour-centric initiative that, in essence, is about effecting a shift in consumer perception of waste so that it has inherent value.

And yet, the reason for a consistent national waste collection service is in no small part down to the confusion among consumers about what they can and cannot recycle.

The communications task ahead is by no means simple.

Decision-making challenges
Consideration of the rudimentary decision-making process once a deposit return scheme is operational sheds light on the complexity of the task.

At the retail outlet: Why do I have to pay more for this drink?

On the street: How far is the nearest deposit return point? Is it worth the walk? There’s a bin right next to me.

At the deposit point: How do I do this?

Post deposit: Was it worth it?

There are huge communications implications at each of these steps, that influence the success or failure of the scheme. Unfortunately, this is not something that a simple public information campaign will solve. Information is not power. Research shows that just because a person has the knowledge, doesn’t mean their actions will follow. Entire university departments are dedicated to the science of behaviour change.

“There are huge communications implications at each of these steps, that influence the success or failure of the scheme.”

One example from theory is the nudge technique, which is based on the premise of subliminal or structural approaches that influence behaviour. For example – find your litter hotspots and add DRS painted ‘footsteps’ on the pavement to the nearest deposit points. The consumer subliminally adapts their behaviour to follow the footsteps rather than throwing it to the ground.

Signposting has huge implications not least from a branding point of view. A swift transition for consumers will require the development of an eye-catching and instantly recognisable brand identity. That aspect is fairly obvious, but labelling is another challenging area.

Consumer confusion around the “green dot” sign and inconsistent recycling logos must surely be considered? Or are we to simply add another logo into the mix? What about OPRL and how that aligns with any DRS system?

Opportunity for innovation
The good news is we are also presented with a huge opportunity to innovate. Behaviour change theory tells us that a disruption point, such as a service change, is a pivotal opportunity to effect a change in behaviour. By disrupting entrenched habits we are pushed to form new ones.

The waste industry is not perhaps renowned for its use of cutting-edge technology, but our attachment to our smartphones presents the ideal platform for communicating on the move. At the very least, deposit return scheme collection points could be integrated with existing tools such as Google Maps to help users find where they can deposit their bottles or cans.

Pushing up the chain, we might consider an app where consumers scan the label on the bottle which not only directs them to where they can deposit their bottle on the move, but why. It’s not a huge leap to imagine some consumers making their purchase decisions based on the recyclability or proximity to a deposit point.

Better still, integrate with Siri, Alexa and Google:

“Siri, where can I return this bottle?”

Mesh the above with popular loyalty card schemes and good recycling behaviour could be incentivised at an additional level. Messaging could be analysed around different variables be it cost, environmental inclination or otherwise to optimise those that perform better.

The possibilities for innovation are endless. We live in a highly connected society where smartphones are as ubiquitous as bins. And here we’ve just touched on recycling on the go, we haven’t even started to talk about what deposit return schemes mean for messaging in terms of how it aligns with the kerbside service; particularly what council communications say about DRS if that material is no longer predominantly collected through the service.

So, it’s clear the Resources and Waste Strategy presents a raft of messages that will be complicated to land with consumers. While we ponder endlessly the operations and infrastructure behind these schemes, let us please spare a thought for the other major factor in this transition. People.

This article first appeared on Circular Online in October 2019.