Brits showed up in overwhelming numbers to vote themselves out of the European Union (EU) last month. Nearly three quarters of the nation’s eligible voters cast a ballot. Of the roughly 33 million people who voted, 52 percent chose to exit.
Millennials now account for the largest sector of the total population at 13 million strong. With months of discussion and media hype, it would be hard to argue that this 24/7 cyber connected group was largely unaware or without opinion. In fact, to ensure their rights, the government allowed for last minute registration.
Yet, millennials failed to swing the vote in favor of their preferred position to remain in the EU. Why? Almost two thirds of voters in that age bracket never cast a ballot. Interestingly, after the vote, droves of young adults felt entitled to protest the results.
For those seeking the key to modifying recycling behaviors, the Brexit statistics and voting figures are an important example. They offer a profound perspective on this significant portion of our population and our recycling education efforts. In comparison, it may help us to understand why recycling awareness alone fails to penetrate the millennial psyche enough to initiate the act of recycling.
After lifetime exposure to environmental issues like global warming, millennials overall confirm their belief in climate change and the consequences of human actions. A number of studies each lend credence, however, to the suspicion that in spite of high expectations for responsible corporate behavior, and sustainable goods, as a group millennials own contributions are less impressive. A higher percentage of UK millennials, than other groups surveyed by the consumer research firm Mintel, say their households do not recycle. Similarly, one in five claim that they recycle infrequently or not at all. Eco Pulse 2013, a consumer study conducted by the Shelton Group, found millennials less likely to recycle, to shut out the lights or turn off devices to conserve energy.
The Brexit vote was so close, had the rest of the young voted, the outcome could have been very different. From all accounts, the polls were conveniently located and accessible. Most were within five minutes of the local population. Obstacles to voting were so minimal that legitimate excuses seem improbable. These same conditions have always been thought to increase recycling participation. The problem with recycling, much like voting, is the lack of immediate gratification.
Millennials react to cause-based marketing where through selective purchasing they, in effect, pay others to act responsively for them. Using the power of their wallets to support the environmental initiatives of others is status quo. Taking direct action is not. So while millennials rally around a concept, they might not physically take up arms and join the crusade. It is possible that recycling rewards programs may suit millennials better than other age groups.
Brexit’s voter furor was triggered by a growing concern over immigration. Malcontent with the impact of other EU policies also influenced the outcome. An area where factions within the United Kingdom (UK) recently expressed concerns on EU directives included waste management and recycling. Although absent in the public scope of Brexit debates and discussions leading up to the ultimate vote, the topic of recycling does illustrate a slice of resentment for big government and a desire for autonomy that lingers in certain segments of the population. Other environmental issues foster these attitudes as well.
Voter demographics are telling in that regard. According to exit poll data from The Telegraph, left-leaning parties like the Green Party and the Labour Party favored remaining in the EU, the origin of most of the UK’s environmental, labor and health and safety regulations. Right-wing voters were 97 percent pro-Brexit. It is reasonable to expect a new, more right-wing conservative government will soon be in charge in Britain. The Brexit proponents are largely climate change skeptics. Pundits speculate that renewable energy, recycling and other carbon reduction policies could be slowed or abandoned. Millennials, whose voter participation occurred at a much lower rate than the population as a whole, could inherit the legacy of their referendum day absenteeism.
EU directives for recycling, landfill diversion, and waste minimization, have been mostly successful in the UK. The policies led to less reliance on landfills, a positive improvement in consumer behavior and the development of energy from waste plants. These same directives came complete with targeted goals, the need for costly investments and hefty penalties.
Much like in the US, the capital outlays necessary to comply with recycling mandates often fell to local government. Their efforts resulted in the UK meeting and often exceeding the past EU goals. Recent separation and sorting requirements added further costs and complicated the collection system, prompting pushback in many communities. Moving forward, the EU Circular Economy Directive would require additional UK investments to attain higher standards of seeing 75 percent of packaging waste recycled by 2030.
The British government has openly criticized the European Commission’s inability to enforce the directives uniformly, pointing to the cost of their successful recycling and waste diversion compliance, and their perception that others EU member countries went largely unscathed in spite of non-conformity. Even corporate UK recycling interests that benefit from the universal directives’ economies of scale offered concerns. They jointly pointed out how the directives focused on increasing material supply with little thought to market development for those recyclable commodities.
In spite of those remarks, like the Cameron government, the corporate recycling industry favored remaining in the EU. There is warranted concern that the policies needed to protect their existing investments could be in jeopardy. Maybe not immediately, but in the long range forecast.
In another camp, some smaller operations see freedom from EU directives as a positive. They believe the loss of cumbersome policies and unrealistic goals provides opportunities to develop niche markets and reduce costs by tailoring service to local needs.
We’re far from realizing the full impact of Brexit. Still, there are lessons learned. Understanding that millennials are supporters and not necessarily implementers, it makes sense they felt betrayed by a public they wrongfully assumed would deliver their expected outcome. The obvious disconnect here was one every generation experiences the hard way. It is the difference between speaking out and voicing an opinion where it counts—a the ballot box.
Michele Nestor is the President of Nestor Resources Inc., based in the Greater Pittsburgh area, and chair of the board of directors, of the Pennsylvania Recycling Markets Center, Penn State, Harrisburg.