Establishing the behaviour change evidence base to inform community-based waste prevention & recycling

Start date:
January 2006
January 2007

This project, part of Defra’s Waste and Resources Evidence Programme (WREP), brought together evidence from a wide range of sources to identify best practice in the delivery of community-based recycling and waste minimisation projects.

This project aimed to enhance Defra's understanding of how behaviour change tools can be used by community and other organisations to promote sustainable waste management. The overarching goal was to close the gap between policy and practice on the ground, identifying the factors that shape successful projects in order to better transfer and replicate good practice.

More specifically, the project explored good practice in project processes, behaviour change approaches, and impact evaluation. We extended our definition of ‘community-based’ to include innovative local authority projects where there was an element of community outreach or direct engagement.

The research began with a desk review of behaviour change literature from a wide range of fields (waste, transport, health, regeneration). This was followed by an electronic survey of local authorities and selected community groups, using an initial sample of around 800 local authorities and community groups, with responses achieved from some 150 projects. This was followed by 57 in-depth interviews and, finally, case studies of 20 projects (including some from local authorities).


Impact of community-based behaviour change projects

  • Our research explored whether quantitative benchmarks could be derived for the effectiveness and impact of community-based recycling and waste prevention projects.
  • We concluded that the existing data are not sufficiently robust, extensive or comparable between projects to support such benchmarks.
  • Only just over half of the projects surveyed were able to give quantitative estimates of either participation or diversion, and only one in five were capturing weight data quantitatively. In most cases, impact or effectiveness were reported qualitatively. Standards of reporting were of variable quality.


  • The review found that project evaluations were heavily process driven. They tended to report on activities undertaken (such as events or campaigns) rather than what those activities had achieved - for example, the number of people who had started recycling as a result, or the amount of waste reduced.
  • We identified particular gaps in the evidence, including quantitative data, accurate reporting, evaluation of behaviour change, and detail on value for money.
  • There was no evidence of  common standards and approaches to measuring or reporting of outcomes; reported data was of variable quality. We also found that few projects used formative evaluation to assess their success, rarely building evaluation plans into the start of their projects.
  • We found that it was not always feasible for projects to measure their impacts, even where they wanted to. Key limitations were cost, a lack of evaluation skills within project teams, and a tendency to think about evaluation late on in the course of a project, as well as difficulties around the actual measurability and attribution of claimed changes in behaviour.
  • A range of different measurability issues was highlighted where further development of methodologies and guidance is indicated.
  • There was little evidence that the learning from projects is being shared widely, so that good practice or common standards can develop.

Project delivery and changing behaviour

  • Engagement tools used by projects included:
    • working through existing social networks;
    • using community based intermediaries (e.g. midwives);
    • promotional campaigns;
    • 'hooks' linking behaviour change to wider interests;
    • community action groups; and
    • community outreach, champions, ambassadors and peer learning.
  • On the whole, projects put a great emphasis on the educational and capacity building aspects of their work, in addition to their environmental objectives. As a result, not all had an immediate impact on the amount of waste generated by their participants and it should be recognised that some of the benefits of community-based projects are likely to be rather more intangible and longer term.
  • Few projects were knowingly applying behaviour change theory or policy in their work, posing a challenge in terms of promoting best practice. A minority of projects had found it hard to engage their target audience; and we found evidence that target audiences were not always researched in depth before projects were devised.
  • Key insights on behaviour change processes were:
    • messages and activities need to be tailored carefully to the target audience;
    • behaviour change takes time, which needs to be allowed for in project duration;
    • volunteers are a significant asset in community-based projects;
    • repeat or on-going contact with participants is a core feature of community-based behaviour change approaches. It helps break into habits but can be expensive;
    • the 'local' dimension of community based projects is important - filling niches and gaps that might not otherwise be spotted and enhancing public engagement;
    • community-based waste projects may be able to 'seed' other sustainable activities (though more evidence is required).
  • While we found that  community-based approaches presented a number of advantages they also exhibit certain weaknesses and barriers, such as a lack of business and management skills, the lack of integration of projects into the wider landscape of waste services and issues around funding.
  • Drawing from the findings, the project team developed a good practice checklist that could be used by similar projects in future when developing their behaviour change work programmes.

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