The BBC's message to staff on recycling

11th November 2011


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The BBC is boosting recycling rates by tackling behavioural change head on. the environmentalist finds out how

The BBC employs around 20,000 people in studios and offices all over the UK. Managing individual recycling habits in a workforce of that size, across many different locations, is a challenging proposition. But that’s exactly what the BBC’s workplace department – responsible for running the organisation’s property estate – set out to do when it embarked on a recycling project in September 2010.

At the time, the BBC had already set itself stretching waste management and recycling targets to 2013, including to reduce waste to landfill by 25% and increase the amount of waste recycled to 75% against a 2007/08 baseline.

Great progress has been made in reducing waste to landfill. Across the estate the BBC now sends 78% less waste to landfill than in 2007/08, largely by taking advantage of new opportunities offered by waste management contractors; large London sites are now described as “zero-landfill” as general waste is sent to an energy-from-waste plant. Progress was slower than expected for recycling, however, with rates stagnating at around 50%.

This stalled progress provided the impetus for the recycling projects, as Olivia Preston, environment risk manager, explains: “We wanted to understand why people weren’t recycling as much as they could, and to look at the factors that would engage them and prompt them to recycle properly as a matter of habit.”

Fluctuating performance

When the project started, the BBC already had in place a fully compliant waste management policy, considering all elements of the “waste hierarchy” for preventing, reusing, recovering, recycling and, as the final resort, disposing of waste. The policy applies across the broadcaster’s estate and offices, or “hubs” as its clusters of national and regional offices are called.

Offices in the BBC’s major locations already operated recycling facilities for paper, confidential paper, plastics, cans, CDs/DVDs, glass and batteries, although there was great variety in the types and layout of facilities available. Where it was logistically feasible, dry, mixed recyclables were collected together. Waste electrical and electronic equipment was, and still is, collected separately at all sites.

After an initial rise in recycling activity following the introduction of various recycling facilities, progress faltered and it was clear that this would need to be addressed if the 75% improvement target was to be achieved.

Although the overall recycling rate hovered consistently at around the 50% mark, there was no clear pattern, and the recycling performance of different offices could fluctuate from one month to the next. The one material that did appear to be recycled properly was that of spent batteries. Maybe, Preston conjectures, because batteries are perceived to be a more “toxic” form of waste.

The recycling project initially focused on eight major properties, which covered 81% of the total estate by headcount. The rationale for starting with the largest buildings was that it made sense to target action where it could have the biggest impact, with a trickle-down effect envisaged for the smaller locations.

The eight major hubs cover the length and breadth of the UK, including London W12 (Media Village and BBC Television Centre) and London W1 (including Broadcasting House), as well as Belfast, Bristol, Cardiff and Glasgow.

People, process, technology

Most change-management initiatives focus on three main dimensions – people, process and technology. The BBC’s recycling project was no exception. In order to maximise the recycling rate it looked at the behaviours of the people involved, whether the processes or “ways of doing things” around recycling could be improved, and whether the appropriate “technology” – in this case primarily the recycling and general waste receptacles – was in place.

As a first step, Preston and her team wanted to look at people’s recycling behaviour and motivating factors. One approach involved asking staff to complete a brief online survey containing questions about current recycling behaviours, the barriers to more effective recycling,and what factors would encourage individuals to carry out more recycling. The survey had a response rate of 10% across a 6,000-strong sample of staff at BBC Media Village in London’s White City.

To complement the quantitative survey findings, Preston and her team also held a number of focus groups in various BBC hubs to probe a bit deeper into people’s recycling behaviour, and gain some anecdotal feedback. The sessions helped to raise awareness about the importance of recycling, respond to people’s queries, and emphasise the role they could play in meeting the BBC’s 2013 target. It was also an opportunity to tell staff about a new guide on recycling supporting the project’s aims.

The next stage of the investigation – the “process” part of the project – followed the journey of waste and recyclable material from its point of use by staff to its collection by the BBC’s external waste collection partners. This involved working with the portering staff who have responsibility for emptying office recycling and general waste bins and the transfer of waste to the service yard.

The “technology” part of the investigation focused on things such as ensuring the 1,100-litre bins dedicated to specific waste streams in the service yards had sufficient capacity. If they were too small or too few it could lead to significant contamination of different recycling streams at the end of the waste journey as there is a risk that recyclable materials could be deposited in the wrong bins. If this did happen, it would undermine most of the efforts made by staff earlier on in the recycling journey.

This part of the research also involved considering the effectiveness of signage on the bins, the positions of bins, and the provision of compactors for cardboard, paper and other suitable materials.

Waste audits were carried out to identify the composition of a sample of the waste, and the initial review showed that a 75% recycling target was realistic, as there was significant scope for improvement. This conclusion was based on the amount of recyclable materials that were being placed incorrectly in the general waste bins.

Into action

An analysis of the findings from the exploratory stage of the project, including the work with the porters, the staff survey and focus groups, revealed five main themes to be influencing behaviour around recycling (see below).

The key findings were built on to shape the next implementation stage of the project. One of the main actions was to improve the signage on the bins in every hub with bright, colour-coded labels. There are now large information posters near to the bins in certain high-footfall areas, with eye-catching icons and clear guidance about disposing of paper, cardboard, plastics, metals and general waste.

It is hoped that people will take the guidance on board, change their behaviour, and carry that with them into other office areas. Preston is adamant that encouraging behaviour change involves providing clear, helpful guidance that is easily accessible, rather than merely top-down instructions.

In all communications about recycling, Preston reminds staff of the 2013 recycling target, emphasising that there is a tangible goal to reach, and encouraging staff to play their part in achieving it.

“We have also tried to boost the profile of recycling across the organisation,” says Preston. “As well as the new recycling guide, available on the intranet, we have launched initiatives like taking part in National Recycling Week in June.”

Posters were put up in each building displaying that hub’s recycling performance, taking care to emphasise the positive improvements made. This is something that is now repeated at quarterly intervals, with updates posted in areas visible to staff, such as coffee points.

“It’s important that we give ongoing positive feedback and recognition to people to encourage their continued efforts,” remarks Preston. “People need to know that it is every individual making an effort that makes a difference – this came out strongly as a motivating factor in the research we carried out.”

The recycling rate is now moving in the right direction, although there is still considerable work to be done to achieve the 75% target, Preston is pleased with the progress to date, but says that it is still early days.

Know your audience

Employee behaviour is pivotal to achieving a significant improvement in recycling. As Preston explains, for energy and water management it is possible to largely engineer-out human error in any bid to save resources. But a purely technical approach is not feasible when it comes to an office’s recycling strategy as it is individuals who are responsible for putting their waste in the correct bins. And a one-off or ad hoc approach to influencing behaviour change is not feasible, as it needs continual reinforcement.

One key lesson that Preston flags up when undertaking any behavioural change is to know your audience.

“It is important to engage with the people you are trying to influence and find the right ways to get the message across. For instance, the BBC is built of media people who are creative and deal with the visual, so it is important that we use vibrant images as well as text and make the signage interesting and creative.

“We have also made use of quick reference ‘QR’ codes for people to download the recycling guide on their smartphones, which has been well received by our gadget-friendly audience,” she says.

Preston says the size of the workforce remains the main challenge to improving recycling rates at the BBC. With such a large workforce, communicating any initiative and trying to affect behavioural change is daunting.

“Our workplaces range from huge open-plan offices to tiny radio stations where it is not possible to predict nine-to-five behaviour. We therefore need to be flexible and recognise if one approach works well in one work setting but not another.”

One way of encouraging good practice is to publicise examples of where staff have taken the initiative. One such example is the Bristol hub where a team had a big clear-out of old VHS tapes. Previously, it had not proved economically viable to recycle the tapes, but through their own research the Bristol staff tracked down a local company that could extract the recycling components from the tapes at a reasonable rate.

It is more examples of local initiatives such as this that Preston is keen to encourage, as the seemingly small efforts of the many will hopefully add up to a corporate effort large enough to hit a 75% recycling rate by 2013.

Key themes to help firms increase recycling rates

  1. Convenience – making the option to recycle as simple as possible, and making it easier to recycle than not. “Although this may seem obvious, it is no less important,” says Olivia Preston, environment risk manager at the BBC. “It means thinking very carefully, on a micro level, where to place the right kind of bin for the right kind of waste – for example, by coffee points, by lifts or by printers. We need to catch people on their normal journeys around the office.” As well as correctly positioned bins, the BBC has ensured that general waste bins are placed next to recycling bins so that people are not forced to contaminate the recycling streams. Under-desk bins had already been removed across the majority of the estate.
  2. Knowledge – the level of understanding people have about waste and recycling affects their behaviour. Clear guidance on what materials can be included in each recycling bin makes it easier for people to do the right thing. There is still cynicism about what happens to recycled waste, so it is important for people to understand the benefits of recycling and the types of products that can be manufactured from recycled materials.
  3. Consistency – both in the look of recycling facilities, for example the same colour bins for the same materials within each hub, and in the messages – that is, making signs about the BBC’s commitment to sustainability consistent across the corporation. Depending on the colours of existing bins, the colour scheme may vary between property hubs. The BBC uses the WRAP scheme where possible and, where different colours are used, the icons and design of the improved signage follow a consistent style. Staff moving between buildings will therefore recognise the recycling bins wherever they are, and know what can be recycled.
  4. Social pressure – people are always influenced by the behaviour of their peers and the goal is to make proper recycling the norm at the BBC by publicising good recycling examples on the part of staff.
  5. “Creating a buzz” – bearing in mind that the BBC employs a diverse range of creative people, it is fitting that there needs to be an energy, and a sense of fun, running through any initiative to improve recycling rates.


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