Five ways to change waste and recycling behaviours. 

Transformation is underway to better deal with the 13.4M tonnes of waste we produce each year in Victoria.

To overcome our waste woes, and feed an emerging circular economy, we all need to significantly rethink what we throw in our bins. Creating valuable things from waste requires putting only quality waste materials in there, and nothing else. It’s a big change. So how?

Fixing our waste system may mean re-educating all of us on how we sort our waste. And motivating us to change our waste behaviours, something we all perform, unthinkingly, everyday. In the long term, a successful circular economy also means rethinking what we buy and avoiding purchasing things destined to end up in landfill, with nowhere else to go.

It means changing social norms and common waste and recycling behaviours.

The waste challenge we tackled with Yarra City Council.

Earlier this year, we worked with Yarra City Council in Melbourne on the Yarra Waste Revolution, a behaviour change campaign helping 1,300 households in Abbotsford transition from using two bins (rubbish, recycling) to using four (rubbish, general recycling, glass recycling, food and green waste).  Residents had to learn from scratch what to dispose of in each bin and were incentivised to minimise their waste.


So far, Abbotsford has saved more than 58 tonnes of food and green waste from ending up in landfill, and locally recycled more than 26 tonnes of paper, plastic, and metals and 38 tonnes of glass. Quality waste materials are now feeding into Yarra’s circular economy.


Five ways we inspired change in waste and recycling behaviours.

Working in close collaboration with Yarra City Council, we used the following techniques to drive change:

We built trust.

Research from Planet Ark shows that trust in recycling is relatively low, with 48% of their respondents thinking recycling mostly goes to landfill or is being stockpiled. Interestingly, they found that ‘information from local council’ is the most likely to build trust in kerbside recycling, more than a report from the media or from a waste and recycling expert.

Trust in the process and outcome is an essential driver of behaviour change. Yarra Council built trust with its residents by being transparent, sharing information about waste to build knowledge, and being consistently supportive. Together, we explained to residents why things needed to change, clearly outlined how to do it, and communicated what waste would get turned into. The council acknowledged the scale of change and reassured residents that they would be there every step of the way to answer questions; and they delivered on their promise.

We reached people using multiple touchpoints and clear language.

A key element of behaviour change is making it as easy as possible for people to change, to cut through their busy lives.

We did this by meeting people where they are, in the right place and at the right time, strategically communicating with residents through a variety of online and offline channels. Direct digital engagement played a key role in reaching people when they needed help. This is why we connected council and community in a Facebook group, where the trickiest questions were answered within a day. We also helped residents avoid the most common waste sorting mistakes by placing instructional stickers on their bins, at the point of decision-making. Throughout the campaign, we consistently used simple and clear vocabulary and images to make communications easy to understand, for everyone.

We provided feedback.

 Another key element of behaviour change is providing feedback on progress. This allows people to be motivated by their achievements and identify room for improvement. In our case, the overwhelming positive adoption of new waste-sorting behaviours in Abbotsford enabled the feedback to serve the dual purpose of social norming as well.

Social norming works by demonstrating how desired behaviours have already been adopted or are increasingly being adopted by peers, appealing to people’s innate desire to be part of the collective, and to jump on board to work towards a common goal.

Throughout the campaign, we provided regular feedback on performance using social norming tactics, for example, communicating the positive behaviours adopted by residents with messages such as “96% of you are sorting waste right, keep going”. This encouraged residents to continue or to get on board with recycling right, to be part of the collective. We also conveyed the benefits of participating in the change, for example, showcasing how much waste had been diverted from landfill, and we shared tips to help people recycle or minimise waste better. All interventions helped improve waste and recycling behaviours.

We worked at the local level.

People are likely to adopt the behaviours their social groups value, to be part of the collective. Intervening at the local level and providing feedback on the doings of a particular community can, therefore, help drive change, especially if many identify with their community.

The idea of collective, community change – of a revolution with the people – is the unifying concept that underpinned the Yarra Waste Revolution. This concept was rendered visually and verbally throughout campaign communications and helped people feel part of the collective and adopt the right behaviours.

We combined communications with strong incentives to change.


Communications campaigns best drive change when combined with compelling incentives, making behaviour change almost inescapable. In the case of the Yarra Waste Revolution, organics, glass and recycling bins with the wrong things in them were refused collection. Affected residents found a sticker sealing their bin, with a tick against the offending contaminating items.

While this intervention frustrated some, it played a key role in reducing bin contamination to just 4%, ensuring recycling facilities receive only quality waste materials. Communications activities and council support services made these interventions easier to accept for residents.

Next steps for behaviour change in waste, in Yarra and beyond.

The Yarra Waste Revolution in Abbotsford has equipped Yarra City Council to potentially expand the waste trial to the rest of Yarra, something many residents seem thrilled about. Still, beyond putting the right waste in the right bins, a lot of work is needed to encourage residents to minimise their waste, even in Abbotsford.

According to Infrastructure Victoria, minimising waste is likely to be the single most important driver of a more resilient recycling and resource recovery sector in the long-term. With the CSIRO recently reporting that Victorians do not have a high sense that they or others could minimise their waste going to landfill, more waste education and support for residents is crucial, to reduce waste sent to landfill, and all the harmful emissions and costs that come with it.

Read more about our work on the Yarra Waste Revolution or talk to us today about how you can inspire change.