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Centre for Earth and Environmental Science Research

Lifestyles and Life-courses: The Social Context of Household Waste Management

Executive Summary
ResearchersProf. Guy Robinson (Principal Investigator) (also University of South Australia)
Dr Stewart Barr (University of Exeter)
Dr Mark Riley (University of Portsmouth)
Dr Terry Tudor (University of Northampton)

Dr Steven Guilbert (Research Fellow)
Dr Alan Metcalf (Research Fellow) (University of Portsmouth)
Funding Body/SourceLeverhulme Trust
Duration2008 - 2012
Project SummaryThis research explores the contemporary nature of waste management lifestyles in the UK within the context of both personal life-courses and socio-economic positionalities, with the aim of assisting policy-makers in designing more successful strategies for waste management. It has four principal objectives: (i) to identify waste management lifestyle groups, based on current waste management practices; (ii) to explore factors influencing current waste practices within these groups using an existing framework of waste management behaviour; (iii) to examine the influence of life-course and social context on current waste practices by adopting an oral history approach with members of each lifestyle group; (iv); to explore the synergies between lifestyles and life-courses, highlighting potential changes in policy necessary to more effectively target waste management policies at specific lifestyle groups.


The recent upsurge in political and popular discourses on municipal waste management in the United Kingdom (UK) illustrates the increasing emphasis placed on households as key agents in developing more sustainable forms of waste management. The discourses encompass all forms of waste reduction, reuse and recycling, but mostly focus on kerbside and civic amenity recycling services provided by local authorities. Underlying the variations in rates of recycling municipal waste are decisions by individual households.

Considerable research has focused on the willingness of households to participate in waste recycling schemes and identification of key motivations and barriers to participation, relating to various situational and psychological factors. This research has mostly overlooked two potentially important determinants of contemporary household waste management behaviour. First, evidence from studies of wider environmental behaviours indicate that activities such as recycling are framed by socially embedded practices linked to lifestyle groups with shared social contexts, world-views and aspirations. Second, studies of consumer behaviour stress the importance of individual life-courses and development of practices within specific temporally-defined social contexts.

This research developed these research agendas by using both quantitative and qualitative methods to explore synergies between lifestyle and life-course approaches to more effectively reveal the basis for current household waste management practices. It built on previous evidence suggesting links between lifestyle groupings and age cohort, and will address the current gaps in research on waste management behaviour (Robinson and Read, 2005).

The research used both quantitative and qualitative methods, divided into two stages.

  1. Identifying lifestyle groups and contemporary influences on behaviour
    A questionnaire survey established various lifestyle groups based on reported waste management behaviour and attitudes. This disaggregated influences on current behaviour by exploring situational and psychological influences on reported waste practices (reduction, reuse and recycling) in a study location with uniform recycling services to act as a control. A systematic random sample of 4000 addresses was drawn from the Electoral Register using the postal method, whereby a researcher personally delivers and collects the questionnaire. The surveys quantitative data were analysed through a series of established analytical procedures, including hierarchical cluster analysis (to identify lifestyle groups under objective 1) and factor and regression analyses (to establish the situational and psychological influences for each lifestyle group).
  2. Exploring life-courses and historical context
    The lifestyle groups located in Stage 1 were investigated using oral life histories about self, relationships with others and with places to provide in-depth insights about environmental behaviour. Life history interviews were conducted to investigate how and which key life-course events have shaped the recycling behaviours identified in Stage 1. This added a previously neglected temporal dimension to the study of recycling behaviour and considered how previously investigated lifestyles intersect with, and are shaped by, different life-course events such that recycling behaviour is not viewed simply as a current attitudinal issue, but as much more historically contingent. Interviews of groups (where possible inter-generational) were conducted to investigate how individuals behaviours are shaped, contested and redefined within household group dynamics. Interviews took a biographical approach, elucidating individuals recycling histories and how these experiences are shared with and imposed upon others within the household. This qualitative data allowed deeper appreciation of historical contexts and contributing factors shaping current recycling attitudes. The data complimented previous research that has directed policy-makers to target (attitudinally defined) lifestyle groups by articulating key events in shaping these attitudes and how these groups may be further divided into life-course groups.


Robinson, G.M., Read, A.D. 2005 Recycling behaviour in a London Borough: results from large-scale household surveys, Resources, Conservation and Recycling, 45, 70-83.

Selected publication(s)

Barr, S.W., Guilbert, S., Tudor, T., Metcalfe, A., Riley, M., Robinson, G.M. 2013 Beyond Recycling: an integrated approach for understanding municipal waste management, Applied Geography, 39: 67-77.

Tudor, T., Robinson, G.M., Riley, M., Guilbert, S. and Barr, S.W. 2011 Challenges facing the sustainable consumption and waste management agendas: perspectives on UK households, Local Environment, 16(1): 51-66.

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