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Winning hearts and minds

Mike Webster

Until now, the target audience for waste prevention campaigns has been the householder, and the most high profile of these being ‘Love Food Hate Waste’, which focuses on simple actions we can take to reduce food waste at home. There have been others too, such as home composting subsidies, real nappy promotions and initiatives to help residents prevent junk mail.

But it is widely recognised that the householder has little or no influence on the waste generated during the manufacture of a product or on its subsequent lifespan. So it could reasonably be argued that the best way for householders to prevent waste is to buy less stuff.

The clearest demonstration of this was during the depths of the credit crunch, when reduced consumer spending led to a fall in waste arisings - almost 10% in some places. But how do we reduce consumption in the long term and still have a flourishing economy?

The traditional response has been the concept of relative decoupling. If we can make more efficient products more efficiently, then we can consume more while, at the same time, reducing the resources required for production. In the past 30 years, the energy required to produce a unit of economic output declined by a third. But this has been more than offset by the increase in economic activity around the world.

So, at some point, we will need to bite the bullet and encourage people to consume less. This would mean less waste, a better environment and, according to social psychologists such as Oliver James, we would all be happier too. But whose responsibility is it for achieving this? Not the Government’s, it would seem.

Is the Government really willing to address people’s values and attitudes around consumption and materialism? So far, the answer is ‘no’. Take local government secretary Eric Pickles’ laissez-faire attitude to how much we put in our bins, and it seems unlikely that a Lib-Con coalition would ever entertain the idea of influencing what and how much people buy. More fundamentally, a government survives by appropriating a proportion of national turnover in tax, so it is hardly going to want to look at an economic model that might reduce this.

Trust is simply not there. The annual Edelman Trust Barometer indicates that although levels of trust in central and local government was down slightly in 2010, trust in the third sector has increased, starting from a much higher base.

So perhaps it should be voluntary organisations and charities that are given the task of promoting waste prevention. In Waste Watch’s experience, delivering waste prevention messages door-to-door directly on behalf of councils is a more challenging experience than if we do it independently. One particular ‘Love Food Hate Waste’ doorstepping campaign led to a hostile local media reaction, the likes of which we have never seen in the years we have been delivering recycling doorstepping campaigns.

But perhaps the debate over who should be responsible for delivery is irrelevant. Given the coming cuts and last month’s spectacle in the press of council waste officers having to defend their roles against accusations of having ‘non-jobs’, perhaps the third sector will be the only player left promoting waste prevention anyway.

An interesting approach to communicating waste prevention is the ‘Zero Waste Week’, delivered by councils across the country. In March 2008, Bury St Edmunds resident Karen Cannard came to public attention for her blog ‘The Rubbish Diet’, with a daily column on Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour, broadcast during Zero Waste Week. Although the blog was intended to last for eight weeks, it has since gained a life of its own as she travels around the country, inspiring others to follow her lead. No expensive communications campaigns, just lots of hard work with a local community activist. In the big green society, it’s what we’ll all have to do.

Mike Webster is a senior consultant at environmental charity Waste Watch

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