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Household Consumption through Recycling in Scotland

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Household consumption is a core issue in sustainable development and has been at the centre of governmental policy making and the push towards sustainability due to its ease of access and influence. The household is considered low hanging fruit (Vandenbergh, Barkenbus and Gilligan, 2008) and is therefore targeted as a potential baseline for sustainable change. Consumption itself is clearly a major issue within sustainable development, with increases being seen across the board from household water consumption in the UK having risen by 70% between 1970 and 2000 (Yorkshire Water, 2001; Shove, 2003), to consistent increases in household waste generation in Scotland, with 2.4 million tonnes being produced in 2019; 17,000 tonnes more than the previous year (Scottish Environment Protection Agency, 2020). The household is important as it is a place of concentrated consumption, and over-consumption, of food, energy and water, as well as issues which come from consumption such as both food and packaging waste. The dominant belief is that the habits and behaviours of individuals, or individual households, is where the biggest change towards more sustainable practice can occur, rather than systemic change; what Shove refers to as the paradigm of ABC attitude, behaviour and choice (Shove, 2010: 1). However, the government-led technological processes and policies put in place are also important for discussing household consumption. This brief will look at the problems surrounding recycling habits, as an example of household consumption, in the Scottish household through the analysis of social practice theory, as well as the state-run technological processes for recycling, and their impact on recycling rates, through the analysis of ecological modernisation.

The UK has been formally recycling since 2003, when the Household Waste Recycling Act was enshrined in law (Friends of the Earth, 2016). The Scottish Government, however, is leading the way towards increased rates of recycling with aims to make Scotland a zero-waste society with a circular economy by 2025 (cite). This can be seen through a variety of policies which have or will be put in place, such as the introduction of the Single Use Carrier Bags Charge (Scotland) Regulations 2014, a year before it was introduced by England; the introduction of a deposit return scheme for drinks containers, and further funding for Zero Waste Scotland and the Scottish Environmental Protection Agency (SEPA). However, there is a long way to go. Scotland's households recycle, on average, under half of what they could (rate of 44.9% in 2019) (Scottish Environment Protection Agency, 2020), meaning there is massive room for improvement. The rate of recycling has decreased by 0.6% since 2017, meaning something must be done if the goal of zero-waste by 2025 is to be achieved. There are many reasons why recycling is such a challenging problem to mitigate. For example, all 32 council areas in Scotland have different regulations on what can be recycled, and provide different amounts and colours of bins for different types of recyclables (Wilson and Nicolson, 2019). Some areas will accept some types, and others will not, for example: West Lothian will accept carrier bags, Moray will accept aerosol canisters, and Clackmannanshire will accept batteries and textiles. This variation in what is accepted and where across the country can make recycling incredibly confusing when visiting or moving to other parts of Scotland. Glass is a major issue as many areas do not offer kerbside collection and therefore residents are responsible for taking their glass to a bottle bank, which can be difficult for many if there isn't a recycling point nearby, or if one doesn't own a car to get there. Alongside this, not offering kerbside collection for glass means many are simply not motivated to recycle their glass, and therefore it is put in the normal bin for landfill. Enabling the household to sort their recyclables into different bins can help to keep costs down for the State, however contamination is a common issue with some plastic is not cleaned, is put in the wrong bin, or is mixed with general waste, resulting in the waste instead being put to landfill or being incinerated. Many forms of packaging can also not be recycled, or are only partly recyclable, resulting in more confusion for the individual in the household when it comes to sorting, with a poll conducted by the BBC finding that 47% of people argue with others in their home about what can be recycled (Stephenson, 2018). With these examples, it can be said that recycling is extremely important to consider in terms of sustainable development as it presents a solution to waste, and therefore must have its potential maximised through individual practice as well as systemic practice.

Patterns of household recycling can be recognised by social practice. Social practice theory (SPT) describes the regular, familiar, routine actions which an individual carries out within a society, both influenced by the environment of that society, as well as creating the society through these actions (Giddens, 1984). Warde cites Reckwitz, writing that individuals are carrier(s) of patterns of behaviour, and that a practice is a routinized type of behaviour which consists of several elements, interconnected to one other.

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These actions which Giddens, Warde and Reckwitz discuss can be observed and recognised to learn more about what individuals in a society do in relation to consumption and predict what they will do if a social change is to occur. Røpke (2009) explains how these social practices require an element of consumption, and draws on Shove and Pantzar's (2005) model of the social practice of consumption as made up of material, meaning and competence. With the issue of recycling, we can look at the waste itself be it plastic packaging, cans, glass etc., the various types of recycling bins for sorting, or the recycling symbol and number on the packaging, as the material. The meaning would be to aim to reduce waste, the social expectation to recycle, and feeling as though you are doing something environmentally friendly. The competence element relates to one's knowledge of recycling regulations in their area, knowing how to clean food waste from recyclables to reduce contamination, and the ability to decipher what can and cannot be recycled, mostly from the aforementioned symbols and numbers on packaging. Looking at SPT and this model is important for understanding everyday consumption and can enlighten us about the problems surrounding rates of recycling through the regular practices and materials, meanings and competences which are attached.

Ecological modernisation (EM) uses technological and innovation approaches to governmental policy and environmental issues. It is “the introduction of environmental technology which also increases resource productivity while also taking marketability and economic viability into consideration (Jänicke, 2008: 1). EM is normally used to discuss pollution reduction through carbon markets; however, it could also be used to describe the technological processes and governmental policies which have been put in place to deal with increasing levels of waste. It is deemed a win-win solution and is optimistic in its attempt to tackle environmental issues without total systemic and social change which may be unrealistic. With regards to recycling, EM has been used to work on reducing waste and creating a semi-circular economy through the recycling of material. It would be unrealistic to eradicate product packaging altogether, therefore EM has been used as a solution. For example, the development and introduction of compostable bioplastics has been a positive advancement away from the primarily used oil-based plastics. However, EM does not always produce the most useful solutions, though often widely accepted by the public as the way forward. Compostable bioplastics have taken over the hospitality sector for take-away coffees and food, but in reality, are proving a massive problem for recycling facilities as they are easily confused as recyclable and are therefore thrown in with the normal recyclables (Niaounakis, 2015). This incurs large costs for the facilities which have to implement increased sorting. It is also a problem for the physical environment, as they are advertised as compostable so many believe they will simply decompose when put in a normal bin for landfill. However, these bioplastics must be industrially decomposed, which alongside being energy intensive, has been extremely confusing for consumers. It must be considered that bioplastics do pose a possible future solution to finite oil-based plastics, however. It is clear that EM is often used as a realistic solution to keep everyone happy for a while, until it is realised that it was not a true solution, and by then it is often too late.

Ecological modernisation and social practice theory are both very important when considering the issue of rates of recycling. They are intertwined, with social practice influencing the development of EM solutions, and EM solutions influencing social practice. The interconnectedness between the two seems to perpetuate a resistance against systemic change. However, it cannot be ignored that elements of EM are causing difficulty for individuals and their ability to carry out social practice through the confusion of the composability and recyclability of bioplastics, as well as the complexity of types of plastics recycled at different local authority facilities (Stephenson, 2018). It is often the responsibility of the household to do the primary sorting of recyclables, however the confusion which comes along with it can be demotivating and result in the individual losing interest and putting the packaging where is most convenient.

To conclude, recycling is an important facet of household consumption which must be considered due to a concentration of waste being produced within the household, of which a massive proportion can be recycled. Scotland is focusing heavily on the future of recycling and observing the social practice behind recycling in the household as well as looking at the ecological modernisation solutions and how they influence one another can greatly improve the government's approach to increasing rates of recycling. However, looking at the negative impacts EM is having on social practice, which could be a factor in the extremely slow increase in recycling rates, may offer some important information into where improvements can be made to support households, rather than continue to confuse and demotivate them.

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Household Consumption through Recycling in Scotland. (2022, September 15). Edubirdie. Retrieved March 4, 2024, from
“Household Consumption through Recycling in Scotland.” Edubirdie, 15 Sept. 2022,
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Household Consumption through Recycling in Scotland [Internet]. Edubirdie. 2022 Sept 15 [cited 2024 Mar 4]. Available from:
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