A recycling scheme in New Zealand modelled on rewards familiar to kindergarten children has seen tonnes of additional recycling head to the sorters every week, instead of landfill.
Following the coronavirus lockdown in March and April, Christchurch city council saw recycling rates plummet, with material from only 48% of recycling trucks able to be processed in June due to frequent contamination issues, the result of poor sorting by residents.
Ross Trotter, the council’s manager for resource and recovery, said his team decided to introduce a public reward and shaming system to motivate people to recycle more carefully.
New Zealanders have low rates of recycling compared with other countries and the amount of waste sent to landfills is expected to double in the next 10 years in Auckland alone, according to Recycling New Zealand.
The Christchurch scheme involves placing a large gold star on the kerbside wheelie bins of successful recyclers, and removes the bins of those who repeatedly fail to recycle properly. The percentage of recycling trucks able to head to the sorters is now nearing 80%.
“We thought it was important that rather than being negative all the time and telling them what they can’t do lets give them some positive reinforcement, and give them a gold sticker reward – something that other residents can see ‘hey they’re a great recycler’,” said Trotter.
“And it’s amazing the number of people that come to us and say ‘how do I get one of those stickers?'”
For residents who fail to correctly sort the contents of their wheelie bin three times, warnings are issued in the form of notes left on the bin. If the problem is still not addressed, the council will confiscate the bin.
This year nearly 1,500 warning letters have been sent, and Trotter said the threat of public shaming was usually enough for residents to address the problem. “The contents of contaminated recycling bins have to go to landfill and it can infect the whole truckload of recycling, so it is a very frustrating issue.
“However the majority of people are trying to do the right thing.”
Since the beginning of the year more than 155,000 bins have been spot-checked by compliance staff and 26% of those have received a gold star “for their excellent recycling”, while 61% have been given an education notice.
Common problems include not removing the lids of milk and other bottles, and including soft plastics such as cheese wrappers.
Two hundred and forty six bins have been removed since the start of the year. If people want their bin back they have to visit the council and sign an agreement to sort their recycling out properly in the future.
“We’ve actually ended up giving gold stars to 56 of the residents who were on a final warning because they have stopped putting rubbish in the bin and are now using it properly,” Trotter said. “That’s probably the best result we could hope for.”
In 2019, 99% of trucks were able to be processed, so Trotter says the council is looking to get residents back to that figure.
The drop in recycling efforts was largely down to Covid, Trotter said, with more people working at home, more pressure on waste collection services, and people deep-cleaning and organising their homes and garages.
Trotter said he was was yet to receive a gold star, but only because the compliance officers had not visited his suburb yet. He remained hopeful: “I’d really like to think I’d get one, it’d be nice actually”.
Nearly two billion plastic containers are thrown in the rubbish by New Zealanders each year and 40% of household waste that could be recycled instead goes in the bin.
According to a recent report by the Waste Management Institute of New Zealand, multiple different recycling systems around the country and confusing guidelines contribute to low rates of recycling.