Is recycling the most effective step we can take to tackle climate change? Exploring public confusion about the environment

If public opinion trackers can be compared to the Premier League, then environmental issues are Leicester City – consistently reaching the upper echelons, but failing to make the next step to Champions League football. The most recent Ipsos MORI Issues Index (April 2021) placed pollution, the environment and climate change 5th in the list of issues that Britons are most concerned about – with 18% of us considering this a big issue facing the country. COVID-19, unsurprisingly, ranks top (49%), followed by the economy (30%) and Europe / Brexit (24%).

Okay, you might think. The public are pretty green – younger people, ABC1 socioeconomic grades and Labour voters (with significant crossover between these groups) even more so. Perhaps there’s still work to do, but those issues at the top of the list do seem pretty important too – what’s the problem?

Yet that subtle nuance in the Ipsos MORI data – the grouping of “Pollution / Environment / Climate Change” in the final ranking – highlights a major challenge for the climate movement. As a nation, we are very confused about what it means to be environmentally friendly.

“Eating a plant-based diet? Plants are good for the environment – why would we want to rip them out of the ground?” Focus group participant, 26th May 2021

Last week, Blue Marble ran five focus groups to explore public understanding of environmental issues. While almost everyone in the groups told us that they were keen to be environmentally friendly (to a greater or lesser extent), there was striking uncertainty about what this should mean in practice.

In one exercise, we asked participants to rank a set of environmentally friendly behaviours in order, from most effective at tackling climate change to least. Across the sessions, recycling was consistently placed at or towards the very top of the list – ahead of behaviours such as buying renewable energy, flying less or driving an electric car. When asked further about this, many participants struggled to explain why they believed recycling was so effective in tackling climate change – sometimes referring to a perceived link between plastic pollution, damage to the oceans and changing weather patterns.

Many focus group participants had a very limited (if any) understanding of the relationship between greenhouse gas emissions and climate change. Instead, when we consider our own actions in relation to the environment, many of us are aware of a broad set of behaviours that count as “environmentally friendly”. We often conflate these with actions that will tackle the causes of climate change. As a result, many of us pick and choose behaviours to suit our lifestyles, and reassure ourselves that we are “doing our bit” for the environment.

In the Ipsos MORI survey, respondents are simply asked to name the issues that concern them most, with their free-form answers grouped into a pre-coded list. The catch-all response code of “pollution / environment / climate change” highlights the extent to which none of these individual issues ranks highly on its own and, for many of us, may feel like the same problem. In last week’s focus groups, participants discussed numerous adjacent environmental issues but often appeared confused about how these link together – which may limit cohesive climate action.

Of course, the wider set of environmentally friendly behaviours (such as recycling and protecting wildlife) are important and good things for us to be doing, and often play some role in addressing climate change. But if the Government’s aim is to tackle the climate emergency – as reiterated in numerous recent policy papers – then confusion around the most crucial changes required to actually achieve this means that it will be harder to prompt behaviour change where it matters most.


Photo by John Cameron on Unsplash