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If young people are disengaged, whose problem is that?

17th October 2014 Posted by

The headline from a recent YouGov poll examining public attitudes towards recycling was that Britain’s so-called Facebook generation (youth aged 18-24) “are the most apathetic generation when it comes to recycling waste”. Apparently only 57 per cent of 18-24 year olds admitted to being committed recyclers, with 71 per cent thinking recycling was not their personal responsibility. In contrast, the over-55s claimed to have far greater commitment towards recycling.

At first glance, these results seem to chime with the study conducted by NUS and published in our report Lifting the Lid – Student Behaviours and Attitudes towards Recycling and Waste. Here, almost 55 per cent of students claimed to be committed recyclers compared to 75 per cent of the wider UK population.

But without delving into the reasons behind these value and behaviour statements, surmising that 18-24 year olds ‘can’t be bothered’ does not tackle the underlying issues. These attitudes and behaviours need to be addressed via the waste management services and communication provided to higher education campuses and students’ homes.

How does one design these services and engage this generation? Without asking more probing questions, it is impossible to say.

For instance, our survey found that young people did care once it was explained to them why recycling was important. In this regard, 18-24 year olds behaved no differently to older people, as we found in Keep Britain Tidy’s study The Ur[bin] Issue sponsored by SITA UK.

In both these studies, context was found to be paramount. Providing the public with a narrative with which they can engage, and then backing this up by designing waste collection systems sympathetically, while consistently reinforcing responsible behaviours, dramatically raises the level of commitment.

Without scratching beneath the surface of seemingly irresponsible behaviours, it is all too easy to condemn an entire cohort of young people as the uncaring “can’t be bothered” generation – potentially causing further alienation.

Dig a bit deeper and one finds that, irrespective of age, the UK’s population wants to do the right thing. Our job as waste management service providers, working alongside those who procure our services, is to supply the context, install the right infrastructure, and reinforce positive behaviours.

One comment on "If young people are disengaged, whose problem is that?"

  • I am showing my age now but I still remember the public service broadcast films about not being a litterbug. It still has an impact on me and I sometimes despair when I see people dropping litter, and on one occasion dropping an item of litter right next to a waste bin. When challenged by an elderly lady who had seen them drop the litter, their shocking retort was that it gives someone a job. We need to embed the idea at an early age that littering is not socially acceptable and the council workers have enough to do simply emptying the plentiful bins there are around without having to undertake a litter pick as well. Unfortunately the offenders know that there is minimal chance of them being prosecuted for what is at the end of the day an environmental CRIME.

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