Waste Watch, to paraphrase Stewart Crocker, the charity’s executive director, has and continues to be in a “state of evolution”. Perhaps one of its great strengths has been its ability to positively embrace and adapt to change – and sometimes dramatic upheaval – since its launch in 1987.
Waste Watch has always been at the heart of the community recycling movement. Set up by the National Council for Voluntary Organisations to make recycling mainstream, its early life was dominated by UK firsts: the first national recycling week; the first National Directory of Recycling Information; the first UK Recycled Products Guide. The charity was also an important political player, along with Friends of the Earth, lobbying government to introduce the first waste strategy for England and Wales.
But the start of the millennium saw a change in fortunes. Having successfully made the case for recycling as a viable commercial activity, WRAP was set up, resulting in a diversion of Defra funding. This marked the first major turning point for Waste Watch as it sought to develop alternative funding streams. The result was the creation of a consultancy arm which has since run over 150 recycling and waste prevention campaigns for local authorities across the country.
But never content with the status quo, in 2008 Waste Watch had begun to look at its role again. Seeing that the public case for recycling had been made, and largely won, the charity set its sights on the next environmental – and social – challenges facing the UK.
With much of the sector beginning to talk of ‘sustainable resource use’, Waste Watch looked to reclaim the increasingly unfashionable term ‘waste’, redefining it as anything that is squandered or not put to best use: materials, natural resources, energy, time, money, skills or potential.
Also recognising that its work had always been about behavioural and social change, as much as environmental improvement, Waste Watch embarked on a complete image and programmatic overhaul – a transformation that would be embedded in its renewed identity and culture, and embodied in its new strapline ‘Waste less. Live more’.
As anyone who has worked at Waste Watch will know – and that includes a large swathe of the sector’s great and the good – Waste Watchers are proud to work for a charity with a social as well as environmental conscience. It has continued to work on the ground, face to face with communities, schools and businesses to encourage peer learning, training others and supporting people to change the way they live.
But while the previous focus was on promoting the tenet ‘reduce, reuse, recycle’, today Waste Watch’s agenda is just as much about sustainable consumption and getting people to ‘rethink stuff’. It is about showing what we can all do to change the way we produce, buy, use and dispose of things. It’s about how individuals, communities, businesses and policy-makers can encourage, support and challenge each other to do things differently. And it is about bringing people together to share and learn new skills.
Recent grant and corporate-funded projects reflect this new change in direction. In Brighton, for example, Waste Watch is working with the YMCA to support vulnerable young adults build skills and confidence, and showing how their efforts can help improve their environment, health and life chances.
In an inner-city estate in the City of London, Waste Watch has trained local residents to carry out home energy assessments in a bid to reduce residents’ energy bills, eliminate fuel poverty and bring the community closer together. And, in west London, a new project to reconnect people with food by exploring personal values has challenged residents to think about their relationship with food, its role in society, our health and the environment.
Waste Watch’s new focus further upstream on sustainable design and production has led to the charity being commissioned by a major blue-chip company to carry out its first international research project. And a renewed emphasis on policy and lobbying has seen Waste Watch take a seat at the European Environmental Bureau in Brussels.
In 2012, Waste Watch will celebrate 25 years in the environment movement. The organisation will continue to evolve, adapting to the social, economic and environmental challenges ahead. But one thing will not change: Waste Watch will continue to help and inspire people to waste less and live sustainably.
Sam Jarvis is head of communications at Waste Watch