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Choose your words carefully – they shape what people think

Alison Jones

The waste industry needs to watch its language, writes Alison Jones

The adage “sticks and stones may break my bones but names will never hurt me” might offer comfort to a small child, but it doesn’t really hold true. Names are influential. We use them to convey information, but often the words we choose are influenced by our own perspective of the item in question. There is a wonderful example in the classic Yes Minister episode where Jim Hacker accuses Brussels of trying to reclassify the British sausage as an emulsified high-fat offal tube. Who would want to eat one of those with mash and onion gravy?

Joking aside, what we call things really matters if we want to influence the way other people see them too. As a communications consultant of 20 years and counting, I am concerned that the waste sector does not pay sufficient attention to the language it uses to talk to the public. In particular, there is little historic regard for the names being applied to different waste treatment technologies and whether they are acceptable or understandable to the public.

Energy from waste (EfW) is a prime example. It’s actually a good, non-technical name and it does what it says on the tin. But most ordinary people do not understand why an EfW facility is not simply an incinerator and look at the trouble that’s caused. This is a lesson we need to learn quickly - especially as there are more new technologies coming into the waste-to-energy mix.

“Some people don’t care what happens to their rubbish, but most do have some interest”

For example, does the person in the street understand the difference between incineration, gasification and pyrolysis? More to the point, do they really want to know? Anyone who has undertaken community consultations will know that there is no single answer to these questions. Some people really do not care how their rubbish is treated as long as it is taken away; however, most do have some interest in the process options and the consequences - good or bad - of each.

The challenge for the waste industry is to communicate these options in terms that are meaningful, and this starts with the name. Proteus is currently organising a number of activities to try to ascertain the public’s understanding of anaerobic digestion and the industry’s ability to communicate its virtues. Anaerobic digestion is not a name but a process, and it is not even specific to waste treatment - so it will be interesting to see if there is any connection in the collective consciousness as yet.

As ever, Proteus favours a direct approach and we will be going out on the street to ask people what they think ‘anaerobic digestion’ means. Early next month, we are hosting a strategic discussion with senior representatives from the industry and the press to gauge their views about the branding and positioning of anaerobic digestion. The results of these activities will be summarised in a video bulletin later this year on Proteus TV (

The names that people choose to use can give a very clear indication about their attitudes and perceptions, both to the subject matter and their intended audience. The waste industry needs to remember that language is an extremely powerful tool, and that names must be applied only after much thought and with due care.

Alison Jones is senior consultant at Proteus Public Relations

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