Sticks or Carrots? What works best in encouraging recycling?

Jul 14, 2010

The launch in June of the rewards for recycling scheme for all residents in the Royal Borough of Windsor and Maidenhead has inspired a lot of discussion amongst the Enventure team, not just because of our involvement in the pilot scheme to maximise resident participation and engagement or the fact our new recruit Caroline used to live in leafy Maidenhead, but mainly for the heated debate it has generated in the media surrounding the merits of incentivising recycling activity.

Whilst visiting Windsor to see the new scheme in action, Communities Secretary Eric Pickles went on record stating that the government would back rewarding people for recycling rather than advocating ‘pay as you throw’ schemes and ‘bin taxes’ debated by the previous Labour government. Talking to Radio 4’s The World At One, he suggested that in order for the UK to meet its target of becoming one of the green economies in Europe, greater levels of recycling across the UK were required and incentivising people to recycle was the quickest way to achieve this.

It does not put the costs up. Actually what it does is it increases the recycling rate and puts money into the local economy.” (from BBC website)


‘Various recycling schemes that have seen significant reductions in the amount of food waste thrown out suggest that incentives aren’t necessary…’


However, we’ve also seen some reports in the media querying the need for such incentives, citing WRAP figures released in 2009 showing that in the last five years across the UK recycling rates have increased from 17% to 34% as well as evidence that a significant number of Local Authorities are already exceeding 40% recycling and composting of household waste. In fact, as reported by MRW (the recycling and waste magazine) Nicola Peake, Managing Director of the May Gurney Environmental Services, believes that such schemes “aren’t actually necessary”. She refers to the success of various food waste recycling schemes that have seen significant reductions in the amount of food waste thrown out without the carrot (groan) of incentives…

When weekly food recycling services are introduced, the level of food waste thrown out drops by up to 25% as residents see how much food they are throwing away and look for new ways to cut waste or to recycle at home.

Bob Wigley the chairman of the government’s Green Investment Bank Commission speaking at a meeting earlier this month put it more even more bluntly when discussing how businesses and households need to improve their environmental performance;


‘As the government seeks to make £2bn of cuts, will incentive schemes with their need for investment prove too costly to implement?’


I don’t think incentives work – sticks do.”

He went on to advocate imposing financial penalties on businesses and households such as increased levels of stamp duty for buyers who refuse to install energy efficient and renewable energy measures when buying a new home.

Furthermore, with the government seeking to make cuts of £2bn in public spending, there are concerns that such incentives schemes with their need for investment and new administration will prove too costly to implement.

This interest in the merits and impact of incentivisation has got Enventure thinking, from the various direct engagement and research projects we’ve conducted for Local Authorities the length and breadth of the UK and the people we’ve spoken to, can we be sure that the prospect of incentivisation really does change people’s intentions and attitudes towards recycling for the better?


‘Our recent research shows that recycling is fast becoming a regular household chore and incentives to recycle more appear to have little impact on recycling activity.’


By looking at the evidence from five of our most recent research projects evaluating recycling schemes we conducted in Harrogate, Trafford, Halton, Tewksbury and Amber Valley* it appears that recycling is fast becoming a regular household chore, another thing to tick off on the weekly household to do list along with ‘do the ironing’, ‘mow the lawn’ and ‘walk the dog’. And as such, incentives to recycle more would have little impact on respondents’ recycling activity, in answer to the question ‘would an incentive encourage you to recycle more?’

  • 7% said yes in Harrogate
  • 4% in Trafford agreed
  • 3% of Tewksbury residents agreed
  • 2% in Halton agreed
  • And 2% of those living in Amber Valley said yes incentives to recycle would encourage them to recycle more.


In fact, ‘nothing’ is the most common response we see in answer to this question in our surveys. These low figures coupled with the corresponding high rates of residents claimed participation in kerbside recycling schemes; we saw reported participation rates for these specific five schemes of between 91 and 99%, it appears that carrots do not provide food for recycling thought.

Rather than offering carrots or indeed sticks, what we really should be looking at is ensuring Local Authorities equip residents with the practical knowledge and skills to reduce the amount of waste generated and encourage ongoing active engagement in such schemes. As well as putting carrot peelings into our compost bins as part of our recycling efforts, we need to reuse by cultivating those carrot top plants that I’ve been reliably informed are a tasty addition to homemade soups!

For more information on how Enventure can help you measure the impact of recycling schemes and associated incentive schemes as well as identifying how best to optimise participation rates, contact us at

* All large scale quantitative primary research studies involving Enventure interviewers speaking to respondents on the doorstep, with an average sample size of approximately 4,200 residents interviewed over the five projects referenced in this article.

Article sources – WRAP recycling data 2009,,