Solving The Big Issue – Using Recycling to End Homelessness


A scheme to end homelessness and improve the recycling and re-use of coffee cups and plastic bottles through the introduction of a 10p levy, which is recovered via a network of recycling bins administered by a homeless organisation; something akin to a waste recycling version of the Big Issue.


According to Crisis, there are over 200,00 households affected by homelessness in the UK each year, with the largest percentage in Greater London. Crisis estimates the cost of ending homelessness at £1 billion per year for 10 years, in a study carried out by PWC.

At the same time, 2.5 billion single use coffee cups are used in the UK each year according to figures from The Guardian newspaper, and 13 billion plastic bottles are sold annually, of which only 7.5 billion are recycled, according to the UK parliament website.

I propose a policy to solve both problems simultaneously, with a 10p levy placed on all coffee cups and plastic bottles sold in the UK and the creation of a network of bins managed by a homeless organisation.

The organisation would empty the bins, take them to recycling centres, and reclaim the levy to fund programmes to end homelessness.

The recycling network would operate somewhat like the Big Issue, with certified homeless people employed in waste recovery teams to empty the bins. This would create employment, as per selling the Big Issue, helping people develop skills and experience to return to the wider, conventional workplace. And the revenue generated from recovering the bottle and cup levies would be used to finance projects to end homelessness.

At current rates, the levy would generate £1.55 billion per year; even with the costs of recovering the bottles and cups, the money leftover would go a long way to the £1 billion a year needed to end homelessness.

To incentivise recycling, only bottles and cups recovered would fund homelessness programmes. From a behaviour science or ’nudge’ perspective, any monies not recovered should be donated to a wildly unpopular project so as to motivate recycling, however this may be deemed politically unacceptable; if so, monies from bottles and cups not recovered should be donated into a national sustainability fund.

While the logistics of such a policy pose some problems, these are not insurmountable.

In cities, extra bins can be provided on streets and offices can manage their own systems to maximise recycling. In more rural areas, recycling bins placed outside supermarkets, for example, would enable people to recycle each time they shopped.

The key is to create hubs to minimise the cost of waste recovery and therefore maximise donations to end homelessness.

The scheme also opens the way for new innovations in waste recycling; since the bottles and coffee cups would have a value, creative ways to recover them from general waste or hard-to-reach areas could be devised, which could in turn help to develop solutions to recover and recycle more waste, such as minerals in mobile phones. Indeed, this same scheme could be applied to electronics equipment, but with a £10 levy instead of 10p, for example.

A benefit from this proposal is the elasticity of demand for bottled products and hot takeaway drinks; an extra 10p on the price will make little difference to people’s spending habits but could make a massive difference to improving recycling rates and ending homelessness.

Begging is not the solution to end homelessness, and anyway in an increasingly cashless society is becoming increasingly difficult; offering consumers a way to use their everyday purchases to end homelessness like this is a great way of enabling people to be agents of change with minimal effort required on their part.

So, instead of the usual approach of dropping a few coins into a beggar’s cup, people would end homelessness by dropping a cup into a homeless organisation’s bin; a new innovation on an age-old activity.




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