23/05/2013 05:12 BST | Updated 22/07/2013 06:12 BST

Understanding Environmental Behaviour in the 'Black Box' of the Household

In the past decade, a huge amount of investment has been poured into behaviour change research and campaigns that have sought to encourage individuals and households to adopt pro-environmental behaviours, from saving household energy and reducing water use to using public transport.

Yet when the term 'pro-environmental behaviour' is used, most people cite recycling as the one practice they closely associate with being green. Indeed, since the 1990s, Great Britain and France have witnessed considerable investment in household collection facilities that make recycling something that's relatively convenient and easy to do. So with all the investment in behaviour change campaigns and infrastructure, why is there still material that can be recycled going into the bin in our homes?

Recent data from YouGov shows that three-quarters of consumers in Great Britain and France claim to "always" recycle plastic bottles at home, and over 63 per cent view recycling as "a moral and environmental duty". Yet in these markets, only half of all plastic bottles are currently sent for recycling, revealing a significant gap between the strong environmental values people profess and their behaviour.

Exeter University is now beginning a new study that aims to understand why this 'value-action gap' exists, working with Coca-Cola Enterprises (CCE), the company that makes and sells Coca-Cola products in Western Europe. CCE sells over 12 billion bottles and cans every year. Each and every one impacts the company's carbon footprint - around half of which is in the packaging. The company has committed to reducing the carbon footprint of its products by one-third by 2020 and so it is determined to keep those bottles and cans in circulation, to be recycled into new bottles and cans again and again.

Whilst CCE has already invested in other parts of the value chain of its packaging, using new materials like PlantBottle and investing in improved plastic reprocessing capacity, it believes more information about consumer decision-making processes can help transform recycling levels for its packaging. We agree. Our joint study aims to understand how to influence consumer behaviour to improve the recycling rates for household packaging.

Our researchers will work with 20 households across the UK and France using in-depth qualitative research methods to understand the dynamics of how materials enter, move through and are discarded from the home. In this way we hope to unlock the 'black box' of the household and understand what actually shapes consumer recycling behaviour behind closed doors.

Much of the existing research suggests that a whole range of factors prevent people from acting on pro-environmental attitudes - everything from infrastructure and buildings to perceptions about the effectiveness of recycling. Yet such an approach assumes that people make decisions about how to recycle in rational ways that reflect their commitment to the environment.

In contrast, our project starts with a different set of assumptions...the most important of which is that what we categorise as recycling is largely the result of a series of everyday 'social practices' that households engage in as part of daily living. We must understand how materials enter the home setting, how they are used by different members of the household, what practices of everyday living are associated with them and how the politics of the household lead to 'decisions' about discarding, maintaining or recycling materials. This project will provide new ways of understanding how the everyday life of the household is implicated in environmental behaviour and ultimately in the recycling rates we observe.

The research will provide Coca-Cola Enterprises with valuable data on how different types of households manage their waste and how consumption within the household has an impact on waste generation. The company will then work with the wider sustainability community and industry to explore new solutions that change the way consumers behave when it comes to household recycling.

CCE and the University of Exeter will share the learnings with a wide range of organisations, from governments and corporations to NGOs, who wish to influence household decisions and have a lasting environmental impact.