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Waste pilot scheme at University of Southampton to reduce urban plastic pollution

The Environment Agency has lead on a project to trial new and innovative recycling interventions at the University of Southampton’s Highfield Campus.

The aim is to reduce plastic pollution from urban catchments through positive behaviour change. The overall objective is to understand the best way to improve recycling behaviours through correct waste sorting, reduce contamination and maximise recycling rates.

It has worked with the Universities of Southampton and Plymouth and the waste management company Suez to achieve this.

The trial

Before deciding on the interventions to be trialled, initial research was carried out into the challenges associated with recycling and waste infrastructure and the success of interventions implemented previously.

Previous studies have found that convenience and proximity of bins is more important than the number of bins available (Schultz et al., 2013). For example, a study for Clean Up Britain concluded that litter bins need to be available, accessible, and visible (Kolodko et al., 2016)

Highfield Campus was selected as the trial location as it replicates an urban setting, with ahigh footfall and use of on-the-go food and drink packaging.

The University of Southampton is close to the coast heightening the likelihood of litter reaching the sea via watercourses. This increases the potential impact of the interventions.

New types of bins to capture specific plastic materials were installed along with explanatory signage at different locations on campus.

Signage was also changed on some existing recycling bins. The innovations targeted on-the-go disposal and recycling of waste.

The trial took place at 3 highly used locations on campus:

  • At the control location (Hartfield Library), no changes were made to bins or signage.
  • At the second location (by the Students’ Union), a large plastic bottle shaped bin to collect plastic bottles was installed with specially designed signage

The aperture (bin opening) was a round shape and size for the target plastic bottles.

The signage used the WRAP (Waste Resources Action Programme) standard colour scheme and had pictures of the target recyclables to be inclusive to all. The signage also included pictures of local wildlife with the text ‘Correct waste sorting helps protect our wildlife’.

  • At the final location (by the bus interchange and next to a coffee outlet), a coffee cup shaped bin with separate openings for liquid, lids and cups was installed. This also included the specially designed signage.

In addition, a plastics only (pots, tubs and trays) bin was installed next to existing bins, also with associated signage.

To evaluate the success of the trial, a research project was created for a master’s student at the university. The research project involved daily weighing of the waste by the estates and facilities teams on campus and weekly waste composition analysis by the master’s student, over a 6-week period from 4 March to 19 August 2022.

This was undertaken to see there was an increase in the mass of waste collected and a reduction in the contamination rate indicating that waste type sorting had improved.

In addition, pre and post intervention attitudinal surveys were carried out by the Environment Agency to understand if there had been a change in attitude and behaviour towards recycling behaviours and waste sorting as a result of the trial.

Key Findings:

1. The bottle shaped bin was the most effective at capturing target materials (plastic bottles) at a rate of 88%
2. Bin shape and apertures were more effective at reducing contamination than changes to signage.
3. Convenience of bins contributed to success

You can find out more about this scheme in this film:

You can download the full report and findings from the link below.



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Download the report


Download the poster