Recently I made a presentation on waste at an event organised by New London Architecture (NLA). Not only was it a pleasure to talk about some of our experience in cities around the world, but it was also thought-provoking to see how many non-industry presenters and attendees view our industry and activities.
One theme that stuck out for me, following a number of comments and views expressed throughout the day, was that our sector should do more to explain not only what we do but why we do it, and the context and influences behind the decisions we make.
Unless we take the time to explain fully the process of decision-making, we are unlikely to help the public and other interested parties to understand the reasoning
Our decisions are based on the information in front of us. But unless we take the time to explain fully the process of decision-making, we are unlikely to help the public and other interested parties to understand the reasoning.This is not to suggest they would necessarily always agree with the decision but, as a minimum, they willunderstand how we got to it.
This is not just a UK issue. My experience last year on a trip to visit a new Sita mechanical biological treatment plant in Perth, Australia, is a good example. During the visit I stayed locally and mixed with the people whose waste would feed the plant.
The angst and worry of the public when asked to stop source-separating their waste into different containers but to put most in one collection bin was palpable. The reason behind the decision appeared sound, the cost and environmental burden with the relatively low-density of population did not balance the obvious benefits of source separated collections.
But for a population weaned on the benefits of source separation and recycling over many years, it was a challenge to people’s consciences to throw all their rubbish into one bin. Their understanding of the wider context was lacking.
At the NLA conference, we were asked some questions about emissions from thermal treatment plants, and specifically why the exhaust stacks were sometimes so high. Once we had explored the question further in conversation, it was fairly clear that to provide an answer required an understanding of the more general factors affecting air quality arising from traffic, for instance.
Without good context and understanding of general air quality and its influence on the design requirements of thermal treatment, how can we hope to explain to residents why a stack needs to be a certain height? Without that context we run the risk of irrational responses and perceptions - like the public served by the new plant in Perth, who thought their new waste management solution for collection was less environmentally friendly because some had not understood the context of the financial and environmental burden of source-separated collections.
It is also very important that public authorities and non-governmental organisations also help to ensure that the fullest possible context is provided to help the public understand the issues behind some of the solutions being proposed
Not only is it important that we in the waste management sector explain the reasoning behind our decisions, it is also very important that public authorities and non-governmental organisations also help to ensure that the fullest possible context is provided to help the public understand the issues behind some of the solutions being proposed. For instance it would not be for a waste management company alone to explain to residents why their local air quality was an issue and why therefore any facility’s exhaust might need to be a certain height.
One other interesting facet of the conference was how people from outside our sector did not always think that trying to blend our facilities into the local context was the best thing. Sometimes iconic or ‘loud and proud’ might be more acceptable and help us to communicate our role in society better.
So my challenge to you is to make sure that, as a sector, we are out there communicating the reasons and context behind what we are doing.
Stuart Hayward-Higham is technical director at Sita UK