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Number crunching

Environment secretary Caroline Spelman’s recent reaction to concerns about the social profiling of waste compositional data warrant a considered response.

At first sight the concerns appear to have been prompted by the recent use of sophisticated computer-based social profiling techniques, such as Acorn and Mosaic, to see what types of waste are generated by people of different social groups, ethnic backgrounds and family lifestyles.

This sort of insight is, of course, vital if services are to be made more efficient, cost-effective and appropriate to the customer. From every angle, the customer insight gained from waste compositional analysis linked to social characteristics meets the new priorities: more efficient services, achieving more for less and better attuned to local needs. But somehow this logic has been overtaken by a concern that the modern surveillance society is prying into people’s personal lifestyles and behaviours. But is this really a new phenomenon?

Digging in my archives, I have unearthed a fascinating record of waste compositional analysis stretching back for nearly a century. And, believe it or not, social segmentation was at the heart of the methods being promoted in the 1930s by a dutiful band of public cleansing engineers.

In 1929, a certain JC Dawes first set out a specification for the systematic sampling and analysis of household waste according to household type. A historical review of waste compositional analysis was published by a former Department of Environment civil servant Brian Gulley in a paper to the former Institute of Waste Management’s spring conference at Aston University in 1983.

As a dewy-eyed young postgraduate, I attended that conference and still have a copy of his paper. It makes fascinating reading, and risks striking terror into the hearts of tabloid editors. From Gulley’s archives is referenced a statistical social profiling table from the 1930s (left) assigning typical waste composition statistics to different types of households - the type of analysis that our ministers now seem so concerned to conceal.

In language that would now create shock-waves, the population was divided into three classes, ‘working class (artisan)’, ‘middle class’ and ‘better class’. Visions of the Cleese-Barker-Corbett sketch from The Frost Report come to mind. The table shows that in 1933-34, the working classes were generating 41.74% of their waste as fine dust cinders while the better classes had only 37.69%. And the impoverished workers binned just 8.43% in vegetable and putrescible waste, while the extravagances of the better classes created no less than 14.07% of such waste.

The expansion of newspaper readership across the social spectrum is revealed in the paper content of the inter-war municipal waste stream. For the lowly artisans, paper in their refuse increased from 8.56% to 11.31% between 1933-36. Those better classes with money and time on their hands, however, showed an increase from 10.25% to 16.33% in the same period.

Did Stanley Baldwin’s Government get hot under the collar about the intrusiveness of this analysis? Nothing in Gulley’s review paper reveals whether the Institute of Public Cleansing, which produced the data, was instructed that the document be removed.

The lesson from history and the recent media scuffle reinforces the same message. To plan and create effective and efficient waste management services, it is vital to know the types of waste that different types of people produce. We are in danger of approaching a ‘book-burning’ rejection of key scientific data, when this knowledge is actually vital to achieving government priorities of technological efficiency and effectiveness.

Waste compositional analysis can, of course, be carried out in full accordance with Ms Spelman’s recent guidance. Sampling can be carried out, waste sorted and analysed, and results presented without any risk to personal privacy, provided the simplest of operational protocols is followed.Let’s hope that, once the tabloid media have found another decadent example of the collapse of western civilisation to get heated about, we can all get on with the job of generating the vital evidence the waste management industry needs in order to perform effectively and meet its targets.
Dr Robert Pocock is chief executive of MEL Research, and has been a national specialist in municipal waste analysis for more than 30 years

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